When Jon Stewart announced that he would be commandeering the Washington, D.C., Mall on Oct. 30 for a ”Rally to Restore Sanity,” what I initially felt was, three cheers for him! Then I thought about it and negotiated myself down to two cheers. Actually, one and a half. And not exactly cheers. More like the strained grin you paste on your face when you want something to be a great idea even as the sudden moisture on the back of your neck suggests that maybe it’s not.
The event is a response to Glenn Beck’s Aug. 28 ”Restoring Honor” rally, about which Stewart, and probably most of his fan base, did not have good feelings. Now, this is an opinion column, so if I were to posit that Beck is a dishonest, demagogic clown who combines televangelical narcissism with the huckster soul of a ShamWow! pitchman, remember that I’m just speaking for myself — as I am when I say that I think a rally in response to his brand of creepy self-adulation could be just grand. However, I have the queasy sense that Stewart is the wrong man for this particular job.
Jon Stewart’s humor has always been oppositional, but he and his admirers sometimes have different notions of what he’s opposing. In interviews, he tends to define himself as the voice of levelheadedness combating the barking of dimwit pontificators, whether they’re in the media, on Wall Street, or in Washington. Sometimes he plays the little TV guy (”just a comedian,” he has said with calculated self-disparagement); often he dons the mantle of the bulls— detector striding across a field populated by overfed bulls. It’s that version of Stewart, rather than the politically progressive left-of-center partisan that he sometimes likes to pretend not to be, that he’ll bring to D.C.
But what plays well in the controlled environment of a cheerful and buoyant studio audience isn’t the same as what jolts tens of thousands of people standing in the open air into a collective reaction. Six years ago, this magazine named Stewart its Entertainer of the Year. When I interviewed him for the story, he spoke of his unease with the kind of joke that yields angry applause — it’s what Saturday Night Live’s Seth Meyers calls ”clapter,” the sort of laugh that’s more about self-righteous agreement with the politics of a joke than about thinking it’s really funny. Every comedian with an appetite for politics succumbs to clapter now and then, but they also know it’s the cheapest way to elicit an audience response, and Stewart, whose integrity I don’t doubt, would rather get a laugh because he’s funny than because he’s right.
As far as I’m concerned, he’s usually both. But rallies are all about clapter. There’s no avoiding it — it’s right there in the word. The goal is to rally people — to unite them in the correctness of a cause. And the people who show up tend to be folks who are angry enough to get off their couches, pack a lunch, gas up, and then go stand outdoors for a really long time. Who are they, exactly? According to Stewart’s website, he hopes the attendees will be ”people who’ve been too busy to go to rallies…. If we had to sum up the political view of our participants in a single sentence…we couldn’t.” Nice try, but that’s a perfect description of the kind of people who think about going to a rally and then decide to watch it on YouTube. The ones who show up — in Washington, just three days before an intensely contested midterm election — are likely to be a lot more partisan, and a lot more pissed off, than Stewart is bargaining for. My guess is that they won’t be people who want everybody to play nice; they’ll be desperate for someone to galvanize them and looking for Stewart to turn himself into the last thing in the world he wants to become — the Glenn Beck of the left.
Maybe Stewart will luck out and get the crowd he wants — a group of fans eager to see him drape a big set of air quotes around the very idea of a rally. But rallies, which are by definition big and shouty, are usually not the best place to fight fire with nuance. Rally crowds make their own rules. And they almost always get the last word.