Inside D.C. entertainment

What does Jon Stewart stand to gain (or lose) from the rally?

October 29, 2010 - 07:00 AM
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While interviewing me yesterday, Craig McMurtrie of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation asked — and I'm paraphrasing here — "Don't you think the attendance of Jon Stewart's rally inevitably will be compared with Glenn Beck's?" Yes, I said, it will. And then I rambled on about the differences between members of a political movement and fans of two satiric talk shows on basic cable. (This quote didn't survive the final edit.) I should have said instead that crowd estimates are notoriously unreliable: Beck's "Restoring Honor" reportedly drew anywhere from 78,000 to 500,000 people, and the estimates for the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" are sure to be equally varied. Nonetheless, if the attendance of Stewart's rally is visibly lower than Beck's was — and by a substantial margin — pundits across the land will deem the event a failure.

But a low attendance is unlikely. The weather should be good: low 60s, with zero precipitation. Comedy Central, if the number of portable toilets they've ordered is any indication, is expecting around 150,000. Of course, that has no bearing whatsoever on how many people actually show up on the National Mall on Saturday; this is not an "if you bring the Porta Potties, they will come" situation. But the anecdotal evidence I've collected in my research — by which I mean "stuff I found while surfing the Internet" — suggests 150,000 is, if anything, on the low side.

And even if fewer people show up, how damaging would that really be to Stewart and Stephen Colbert? I doubt they'll lose viewers over it; they simply won't have the cultural capital to pull off a similarly audacious event in the future. The only actual loss will be the of thousands of dollars Comedy Central invested in the rally, and even then, the money spent can already been justified by the abundant, free publicity for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

"I don't really see many downsides to them holding this rally, other than the time and financial costs," says Kimberly Meltzer, a professor in Georgetown University's Communication, Culture and Technology masters program. "If anything, I think the rally is going to strengthen the connection their fans and viewers have with them." In academic circles, this connection is called "parasocial interaction," a relationship in which a TV personality holds all of the power, using eye contact, inside jokes, and conversational language to create, in the viewer, the fantasy or illusion of intimacy. "Adding this real-world, participatory dimension will bolster and reinforce the fans, and draw the attention of non-fans — at least temporarily."

In other words, Stewart and Colbert are like Vincent Ludwig in The Naked Gun: All they have to do is press a button on their remote control and we'll do whatever they say. But instead of being sent to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II, we're merely ordered to laugh at whomever is currently the subject of their ridicule.


Maybe I'm overthinking this. Come to my aid, Lauren Feldman, professor at American University's School of Communication: "The most important perspective to take is that of the participants — why are they going and what are they getting out of it? I think in terms of what they have to gain, it just solidifies them as a cultural force to be reckoned with."

They're also a force for Comedy Central. Feldman, a Daily Show expert and professed fan, says the rally is "good PR for Comedy Central, generally," and that she doesn't expect Stewart's fans to be disappointed by the rally because "his following is so loyal." Rather, she sees the rally, "a conventional form of political participation," as an "empowering" event for "moderate Americans who don't readily identify with the extremes of the political spectrum."

"If anything, it's going to be energizing, particularly for the people watching from home," says Feldman. "I think it might push them toward voting."

But this could swing the other way: By participating, attendees might feel they've done enough — and then not vote. Says Meltzer, "One risk that could occur is people have the feeling of participation, but that's not actual participation in the form of voting."

Shari Anne Brill, a former media industry analyst for Carat, gives Stewart and Colbert credit for getting people "thinking about what's going on with the elections, even if it's in jest." She cautions, however, against overestimating the duo's political influence. "They're first and foremost entertainerss," she says. "I think [the rally] is going to be big for ratings."

Feldman wonders, too, whether the rally will achieve its stated goal of restoring sanity. "It's a nice idea," she says, "but whether it will really have an impact on civility in discourse, that's questionable."

Either way, it's a good time to be a media and political satirist.

"I think the timing has been perfect," Brill says. "If you want to be a comedian, this is the time to be a comedian, because the things that are happening with the candidates, and with the talk shows — there's never been a better time. They're just handing them material. It's like manna from heaven."

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