Inside D.C. entertainment

A guide to the misguided criticism of the Stewart/Colbert rally

October 27, 2010 - 07:22 AM
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On Monday afternoon, during a Q&A with Jon Stewart just minutes before this week's first Daily Show taping in D.C., an audience member asked for specifics about Saturday's "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear." Stewart, who's been rationing out details for weeks, would only say, "Let me put it this way — you'll have fun." It's a word that bears repeating — "fun" — and one that Stewart has been repeating, perhaps because a growing number of cultural critics, unlike his fans, refuse to believe that a comedian who hosts a news-satire show on a channel called Comedy Central could possibly aspire only to be entertaining.

"I think that they're all guilty of what jazz musician Charles Mingus called 'mental tardiness,'" Slate's Jack Shafer, who doesn't plan to write a Press Box column about the rally, tells me. "I think these critics aren't really thinking it out all the way."

Or maybe they're thinking too hard. While their conclusions, invariably, are that Stewart and Stephen Colbert should cancel their Oct. 30 rally, the supporting arguments are myriad, ranging from "Stewart is too serious" to "laughing isn't funny." Hell, even the anarchists have reservations. With new takedowns appearing in the press every day — the Post itself has published a slim volume already — you can't possibly read them all. Nor do you need to. All of them make one or more of the following cases:

Stewart and Colbert have crossed the line separating entertainment from political activism.

Post critic Carlos Lozada writes, "We already have a formerly hilarious satirist turned sober politician. America doesn't need another Al Franken. We need Jon Stewart." So apparently there's only room for one entertainer-turned-politician in America, as Lozada fails to mention Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, Fred Thompson, Jesse Ventura, Sonny Bono and, of course, Ronald Reagan.

Shafer, as expected, has some choice words for such an argument. "Who drew the line, and whose right is it to draw a line?" he asked me. "I see no line that they've crossed. I don't know of there being any line. If there is any line, I would gladly step over it. I'd gladly take a shit on that line."

Know your place, Jon Stewart.

John Nolte of Big Hollywood says Stewart's mistake was "letting his hubris get ahead of him." David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun's TV critic, finds a stronger synonym: "Let me be perfectly clear, I think the arrogance of Stewart and Colbert has reached a point with this rally that I find appalling. But I am even more worried about the bow-down-and-blindly-worship followers who seem to have lost all sense of perspective."

Is it arrogant to think you can draw hundreds of thousands to a satiric rally? Perhaps. But what major TV personality — or politician, for that matter — isn't arrogant on some level? It takes a certain chutzpah to achieve that level of popularity, and asking an entertainer not to seek the largest possible audience is like asking a lawyer to file fewer lawsuits. I would love to hear what Zurawik thinks about, say, Bob Hope.

Lozada similarly wishes Stewart were less ambitious: "We don't need you to hold a rally to restore America's sanity. We go to that rally every Monday through Thursday night, when we tune in to your show." Later, he adds, "Keep throwing spitballs from the back. Don't try to move to the front of the country." Translation: How dare you try to wield your enormous cultural influence. (Smacks a little of jealousy to me.)

The headline of Paul Farhi's piece for the Post sums it up: "Just who does Jon Stewart think he is?"

Is this the best the liberals can do?

Anne Applebaum, in an article in the Post entitled "Jon Stewart's march is no laughing matter," says her heart sank when she heard about the rally. "My heart sank further when I learned that liberal groups, lacking any better ideas, have decided to take this endeavor seriously. It's bad enough that the only way to drum up enthusiasm for a 'Rally to Restore Sanity' is to make it into a television comedian's joke. But it's far worse that the 'moderates' in attendance will have been bused in by Arianna Huffington and organized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals."

Where to start. Well, the "Rally to Restore Sanity" was drummed up by Stewart, so it wasn't "made into a television comedian's joke" — it's his joke. He made it! Reading Applebaum's piece, you'd think some shadow group of liberals concocted the rally and elected Stewart as its leader. She calls the rally "such a gloomy development" and says she "wouldn't want to spoil the fun by calling it 'tragic.' But if that's the best the center can do, then 'blackly humorous' wouldn't be that far off." This is not "the best the center can do"; it's the best Stewart can do. Applebaum never defines "the center," and I'm not convinced it even exists — not in any organizational sense, anyway. But whatever "the center" is, it hasn't organized this rally.

Also, yes, you're trying to spoil the fun.

The National Mall is sacred ground — not a comedy club.

Zurawik voices his "concerns about a couple of comedians, no matter how astute their social commentary and satire might be, coming to Washington and trying to stand on the ground made sacred by moral giants like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." And Mark Judge of the Daily Caller believes marches on Washington "are forums for proclaiming truths about human beings, truths that are more often than not tied to ideas about God, morality, and the common good. It is a time and setting that should encourage aiming for the fences."

Shafer says it could be worse: "Far better that these guys are coming and doing a rally here than Mr. Kevorkian from Michigan — Dr. Death. And I think that a little levity on the Mall about politics will be a great thing." And the Mall has, in fact, seen much worse. Among those who have stood on this "sacred" ground, "proclaiming truths about human beings": Britney Spears. She performed there in 2003 for the NFL season kickoff, and her halter top and bedazzled belly button certainly aimed for the fences.

Stewart is taking himself too seriously.

Time magazine's James Poniewozik, to be fair, says only that Stewart runs the risk of being seen this way. Sensibly, he sees the rally as "sort of a part of what has long been the message of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, which, in addition to all the comedy and crude jokes and stuff like that, has also been about really almost a kind of old-fashioned high-mindedness toward journalism."

The Post's Sandhya Somashekhar also raises the seriousness issue without quite making the argument herself: "[Stewart] has said emphatically in interviews that the rally is not a political event, but rather a comedy show for those everyday Americans who are either too busy with their lives or too sensible to get overheated about politics. However, as he does with many of his jokes, he is taking this one to the very brink of seriousness."

But Lozada thinks Stewart is past the brink. In epistolary mode, he writes to Stewart, "This 'Rally to Restore Sanity' feels just a little too . . . what's the word . . . earnest for you."

Or maybe the problem is...

Stewart isn't taking this seriously enough.

"This could have been a lesson in elevating the progressive community's sense of civic duty," writes The Huffington Post's Rizvi Quereshi. "But Stewart appears uninterested in generating enduring change; he wants a day-long party. Then people can go back to the things that matter — lives of domesticity, and watching shows that make jokes about how seriously screwed up things are."

Zurawik, meanwhile, insists that what this country needs "is not more satire. We have plenty of that. In fact, as a culture, we are amusement-addled and drowning in a sea of stare-at-the-screen snark."

So if Stewart is going to be funny, then maybe...

He should be more like Will Rogers.

This one comes courtesy of Slate's Timothy Noah. He holds up a Rogers quip — "An ignorant person is one who doesn't know what you have just found out." — as a lesson for Stewart and Colbert, who, Noah laments, "don't tell their audiences not to feel superior. They're more in line with Rogers' contemporary, the essayist H.L. Mencken, who invited his audience to chortle at the booboisie." Question for Noah: Which satirist wouldn't rather be compared to Mencken?

Shafer says about his coworker, "You know, Tim Noah is a good friend of mine, but I think he's a blockhead in this piece. Tim uses humor in a lot of his pieces, and that doesn't make his pieces over the line. He uses ridicule, he uses sarcasm, he uses wit — all of which belong, I think, in the trick bag of a political journalist." As for Rogers, he adds, "I'm sure that in Will Rogers' day, he had critics saying, 'The Depression is too important for anybody to make jokes about,' or, 'Who do you think you are cracking jokes about Republicans?'"

Stewart is making a mockery of American politics. Also: Laughing isn't very funny because it might hurt someone's feelings.

Bob Samuels, a lecturer and union leader at UCLA, has provided the most meandering criticism yet. While his progressive friends consider Stewart a "great" political critic, Samuels writes in the Huffington Post, "I have argued that his type of humor undermines American politics by turning everything into a joke and a source of mockery."

Certain arguments cause my fingers to freeze over my keyboard; I am rendered digitally speechless. Fortunately, Shafer sets the record straight: "Humor has played an important role in politics and in discourse for centuries, maybe millennia." This quote probably wasn't necessary, but you can never be too careful: There might still be a few people out there who don't find American politics to be hilarious.

Samuels, in fighting against laughter, is inadvertently hilarious himself. He insists his argument "is not that we need to respect or idealize our political officials; rather, I believe that by constantly laughing at public figures, we feed a libertarian consensus." Oh, now I get it. By laughing at politicians, we're letting the libertarians win! If this hilarity continues, our society will soon be populated solely by gun-owning potheads. So everyone, please, for the sake of America's future, stop finding things funny.

A master of the segue, Samuels then touches on Freud, racism, sexism, and homophobia, only to return to the inherent evil of humor. "In my attempts to study how humor affects people in our culture," he writes, "I have engaged in anonymous chat room discussion with college students." Now I know how it feels to be Jon Stewart: These jokes write themselves.

"I know people hate this argument because they love laughing and escaping through entertainment," concludes Samuels, "but one has to ask what are we escaping from, and what does it mean that we spend so much time trying to remove ourselves from our own lives. Before you tell me to get a life and loosen up a bit, step back and think about the last time you laughed and whom or what was the target of your laughter."

[Blogger takes a step back. Examines target: Bob Samuels. Continues laughing.]

The rally is, first and foremost, an entertainment spectacle. Lighten up.

This argument is my own. What strikes me most about the aforementioned critiques is their tone — of admonishment, betrayal, and even anger. It's a cultural critic's job to get riled about things that, for many of us, aren't worth getting riled up about, and I've wondered if not a few of these articles were "hit pieces" — takedowns ordered by editors dreaming of increased pageviews. But these are, I admit, cynical hypotheses.

And yet, there must be an explanation for critics' overwhelmingly negative reaction to a rally that, far as I know, has few opponents outside the Fox News studio. (I even spoke to a Tea Party organizer in Virginia who had no comment other than to wish Stewart well.) Some of the writers were visibly miffed by Stewart's insistence that the rally isn't political — that it's merely a send-up of political rallies. Clearly, the rally is political. Stewart even admitted at Monday night's taping of The Daily Show that he booked the National Mall right after he heard about Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally, and surely it's not lost on Stewart that his event falls just three days before the midterm elections. To say the rally isn't political is slightly disingenuous.

What Stewart means to say, of course, is that he's not overtly espousing a particular partisan line. Is he pushing his fans in a leftward direction? Sure — just look at The Daily Show lineup this week, which includes President Obama tonight. But anyone who's watched the show knows where Stewart's political beliefs lie, and many of the critics above are professed fans of his. So why this sudden defection? Because, I think, they felt a certain ownership over, or at least camaraderie with, Stewart. Print and web journalists, generally speaking, are a prickly, defensive, and arrogant bunch. We imagine ourselves superior to TV newscasters, who traffic in sound bites and manufactured controversy and high-decibel alarmism. In our minds, we writers slave away at our desks, composing thoughtful articles that are too nuanced for TV, and yet we remain largely anonymous while all those empty-headed beautiful people soak up the relative fame afforded by television.

As the criticism of Stewart's rally proves, we are delusional: Writers often aren't very thoughtful at all. We're just bitter. We loved Stewart because he voiced that bitterness we felt — about politics, about television, and even about our own careers. Now that his narrative has diverged from our own, we fear he'll become just another media figure — or worse, a politician — about whom we're forced to write articles. Some of us, consequently, reject Stewart in the way we might reject a boyfriend or girlfriend who has left us for something bigger: He or she is already gone, but somehow we convince ourselves that the decision to leave the relationship was ours to make.

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