I was invited to participate in a New York Times “Room for Debate” online roundtable prior to the Stewart/Colbert rally. I was told initially to submit a few paragraphs (and given less than 24 hours to come up with something). Upon submitting my piece, I was told to trim it to about 1/3 the length, and quick, quick, quick! Naturally, some of the nuance was left on the cutting-room floor.
Here, then, is the longer version:
There has already been a good deal of pre-emptive tut-tutting about the Stewart/Colbert rally, so I want to say at the outset that I am all for it, and think that the intentions behind it are, if not exactly pure (it’s partly a publicity stunt, of course), then mostly good. And despite Stewart’s somewhat disingenuous denials, the “Rally to Restore Sanity” is absolutely an “answer” to Beck’s rally, which absolutely deserves—nay, demands—a satirical answer. Why have satire, and why live in a society where we (rightly) cherish the right to satirize, if not to respond to such provocations? It’s no leap of logic to see that one of the unstated goals of holding this rally is to outdraw Beck’s 87,000 attendees, thus “proving” that, despite all the attention he and the Tea Partiers have gotten in the mainstream press, that they represent a fringe phenomenon—which would be a welcome corrective to the media narrative that has developed around them.
When any group of Americans uses their freedoms of speech and assembly to express ideas with which we disagree, the most appropriate, honorable, and patriotic way to respond is to use those same freedoms to express our opposition. Answering one rally with another is wholly appropriate; it’s the American thing to do. Nor do I think that the humorous tone diminishes this exercise of the First Amendment; any country that venerates Twain as its greatest writer and Lincoln as its greatest leader ought to realize that a sense of humor is not incompatible with a sense of serious purpose.
As to this rally’s purpose: though Stewart’s stated aim of “restoring sanity” is obviously a bit of comic grandiosity, I think he is basically sincere in stating this as the rally’s theme. It’s hyperbole, but it’s not cynicism. I don’t think Stewart is himself a cynical person—anyone who has watched his interviews can see that he takes ideas and issues seriously—nor is cynicism the basis of the kind of satire The Daily Show and The Colbert Report deal in.
There is a tendency, in covering the role of comedy in our political discussion, to simply equate mockery with trivialization and cynicism, but not all mockery is trivial, or cynical. Some of it is. The kind of political humor that is the stock in trade of network late-night shows—the Johnny Carson, “equal-opportunity offender” model which Leno, Letterman, Conan O’Brien and even Saturday Night Live still mostly follow; which treats politics as a silly game played by a set of roughly interchangeable fools and charlatans; which goes for quick, broad jokes that focus on personalities more than policies—that’s cynical. It precedes from a cynical premise, and in large doses (which we’ve surely been getting since late-night shows started multiplying in the early 90s), it does, indeed, encourage cynicism. The bottom line of this kind of humor is, “they’re all crooks, it doesn’t matter, why bother, why care?” And it’s easy to forget this, especially with the present focus on Stewart and Colbert, but that kind of political humor is still far more prevalent than the very different kind you can see for four hours a week on Comedy Central: Leno’s ratings are down, but he still reaches millions more viewers than Stewart or Colbert.
I refer to that type of humor—“George W. Bush is such a ninny, Bill Clinton is such a horndog, Al Gore is a robot, John McCain is so old”—as pseudo-satire. It seems political, because it mentions politicians, and uses the day’s headlines as a jumping off point, but it’s actually dismissive of politics. It’s scrupulously bi-partisan (or non-partisan) and anti-political, and it is so by design. It not only suggests that political engagement is futile, it insists that it is. And though that may seem like a radical premise, it’s actually very safe: if it’s all just silly, there’s no reason for anyone to get very upset about it.
Colbert and Daily Show viewers, as a general rule, take politics more seriously than that. These shows traffic in genuine satire (not always, but most of the time). You have to care about what’s going on in order to get anything out of them. Fans of Stewart and Colbert watch with the feeling that if you couldn’t laugh about what they’re saying, you would have to cry. That essential, underlying appreciation of the seriousness of the subject—the consequential nature of politics—is not compatible with cynicism.
That sense of consequence, and the passion that arises from that commitment, is the common link between Stewart/Colbert viewers and followers of pundits like Beck. But though Beck, on the one hand, and Stewart/Colbert, on the other, do represent constituencies that are likely to support different sets of politicians, I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that they are surrogates for those politicians. They are, rather, alternative representatives for their viewing constituencies. They give voice to audiences that feel, justifiably or not, voiceless. Elected officials purportedly represent the people who vote for them, but media figures can “represent” in a purer way. (Especially in this age of narrowcasting. Neither Fox News nor the Comedy Central shows have audiences large enough to have kept them on the air in the network era.)
They are comparable, I suppose, to politicians in very ideologically homogeneous districts, like some of the more viable Tea Party candidates: their appeal is narrow, but powerful, because their circumstances allow them to succeed without compromising or tempering their remarks. On the other hand, if you’re a politician from a “purple” state, a president or presidential candidate, or a member of Congress who actually wants to get something passed, you’re going to have to compromise, and you’re going to have to speak more carefully. By a similar token, if you’re a “mainstream” journalist or a network comedian, you can’t succeed playing it “pure” to a narrow, but fervent, constituency.
Having said that, I think the Stewart’s position is in danger of becoming untenable, in a way that Beck’s—or even Colbert’s—is not. For one thing, as Stewart’s influence grows, his insistence that he is “just a comedian” becomes harder to accept. You can’t go on Crossfire, refuse to be funny, accuse the hosts of “hurting America,” get the show canceled, and then go back to insisting you’re “just a comedian.” Stewart deserves credit for those occasions upon which he exposes truths where news media fear to tread, but you can’t both influence the political discussion and claim to be outside of it—not without coming across as disingenuous.
The other problem I see for Stewart is this whole commitment to “sanity.” Not that I’m not pro-sanity, but satire, like contemporary punditry, originates in a sense of outrage, and is essentially a negative form of address. It’s about what you are against, not what you are for. That’s why The Daily Show really came into its own during the Bush years: politically-aware Americans who thought that both the country and the news media had gone crazy with the Patriot Act, the invasion of Iraq, and the other excesses of the W. Bush administration, found an oasis of sanity on Comedy Central, and turned Stewart into a force to be reckoned with, whether he sought that or not.
But being Pro-Sanity is not as viable, for a satirist, as being Anti- (specific kinds of) Crazy. The “Pro-Sanity” premise, and the very structure of The Daily Show, force Stewart to keep one foot in the “equal-opportunity offender” camp. The correspondents say crazy things, the politicians and media figures he shows clips of say crazy things, and he stares wide-eyed, into the camera, looking shocked. He’s the sane referee, “they” are the crazy idealogues. He is the surrogate for the audience, but this assumes the audience also aspires to neutrality, which is, like cynicism, a form of disengagement. Though he may spend more time worrying about the jokers to his right than the clowns to his left, he is still stuck in the middle, with Us.
But now that the real-world situation is somewhat different, and a president who is more palatable to the average Daily Show viewer is in office, that “impartial referee” position pushes Stewart dangerously close to Jay Leno, “equal-opportunity offender” territory. When he was interviewing Obama the other night, Stewart criticized the health care act for being too compromised—but you can’t really be for “moderation” and then attack things on the basis of their being too compromised and, in a sense, too bipartisan. (I don’t mean this to be a defense of the bill; what I’m examining is the viability of Stewart’s rhetorical position.) If your over-arching commitment is to be criticize whatever is going on and whoever is in office from a standpoint of reasonableness and moderation, you’re going to run into trouble coming up with a satisfactory response to the frustrations that arise from an excess of reasonableness and moderation.
Fortunately for Stewart, Beck and the Tea Party candidates still provide plenty of outright madness to contend with. Still, I find it painful to watch The Daily Show engage in calculated acts of “balance”—stooping so low, at one point, as to do an Obama/teleprompter joke that would barely have passed muster on Fox’s late, unlamented Half-Hour News Hour—so that Stewart can continue to deny that he is for anything other than “sanity.” I don’t think Stewart should “declare” himself as a committed liberal, or turn The Daily Show into agitprop—that would probably kill the comedy—but I do wonder if he hasn’t painted himself into a bit of a corner.
Ironically, Colbert—whose whole shtick is built on saying the opposite of what he really believes—runs less risk of being forced into a kind of cynical insincerity. Since he doesn’t play “himself”—a sane, “nice-guy” audience surrogate—he doesn’t have to go through any of those “equal-opportunity offender” motions. And he can’t get by, like Stewart too often does, on being cute and likable. (For all the sharpness The Daily Show sometimes musters, it’s amazing how much camera-time Stewart eats up mugging and giggling.) The Colbert Report has revived the tradition of Swift, without much taint of the spirit of Leno. It’s partly a function of the writing (it’s much more of a through-written show than Stewart’s, which gets a lot of mileage from taped pieces featuring rubes saying the darnedest things), but it’s largely due to the central conceit of Colbert’s right-wing blowhard persona. The fact that he operates from the perspective of this character allows Colbert and his writers to analyze political language at a much deeper level of complexity than even the unusually-literate-for-TV Daily Show can manage. More to the point, it represents a step away from the “I’m just a comedian, and this is all a joke” foundation that keeps Stewart tied to a more timid tradition.
I’m certainly more in favor of Restoring Sanity than Keeping Fear Alive, but I think Colbert’s position offers richer and more sustainable satirical possibilities. We could use a dose of Sanity, but as history suggests it is unlikely to prevail (and that Fear will out), we will definitely continue to need satire that stays on the attack.
Here is a link to the version that appeared on the Times website: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2010/10/28/when-does-a-fake-political-rally-turn-real/the-opposite-of-cynicism