Can These Guys Be Serious?

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert want to restore reason to public life

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Illustration by Nancy Stahl for TIME

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Hence the rally, an attempt to make a statement, and maybe even build a movement, out of what has become the essence of Stewart's and Colbert's comedy: the defense of rationality in an irrational age. Since The Colbert Report began five years ago, it has satirized "truthiness," the idea that what one believes in one's gut is more important than objective reality. Stewart often needs to do little more to get a laugh than play a news clip and put his head in his hands. Beyond the jokes, the appeal of watching both is simply knowing that someone else out there thinks, as they say on the Internet, The stupid, it burns.

The obvious comparison for Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity is the Restoring Honor rally, in which Beck's fans descended on Washington in August (87,000 of them, says an analysis commissioned by CBS; 300,000 or more, says Beck). But a more interesting parallel might be the Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour, in which ousted Tonight Show host Conan O'Brien took his outrage on the road. Whereas O'Brien built a live show around losing his job, Stewart and Colbert are building one around America's losing its mind.

Small Audience, Big Voices
This isn't to take anything away from O'Brien, who's a master of absurdist comedy (and who will be competing with Stewart and Colbert when Conan starts Nov. 8 on TBS). But Colbert and Stewart focus on humor with a point — historically a tough sell on TV. There's a reason late-night comics still tell Monica Lewinsky jokes. If you don't want to offend anyone, make fun of foibles, not ideas. Stewart has been considered for big-network late-night slots, but it's unlikely The Daily Show could translate to the broad sleepy-time audience. On Comedy Central he can cultivate a limited, deeply interested fan base — one that, according to a Pew Research poll, is more knowledgeable about the news than any other major-media audience is. (To reach those viewers, President Obama, who has expressed support for the rally, will appear on the show Oct. 27.)

But having smaller viewerships doesn't mean Stewart and Colbert have less impact. The truth of TV today is that, by the standards of the Johnny Carson and Walter Cronkite eras, there is no mass audience anymore. Intensity of influence has replaced breadth of influence. Just as a vocal 15% can dominate politics, so too can Stewart and Colbert accomplish more by waking a million or two fans up than by putting 5 million to sleep.

Waking them up to what ideas, and to what purpose? Stewart's and Colbert's programs are no more ideologically neutral than their targets on Fox News. Both hosts are liberal. The Daily Show tends to paint the Democrats as screwing up while it paints the Republicans as screwing us over. Colbert, meanwhile, famously remarked (in character) that "reality has a well-known liberal bias."

But the shows try to be political without being partisan. That is, they're driven more by applying their b.s. detectors to both sides — and, above all, to the media — than by trying to help the good guys win. The fact that they're holding a rally three days before the midterm elections has Democratic organizers worried they'll draw away potential get-out-the-vote activists. "Tough s___," Stewart said when asked about this by NPR's Terry Gross. "I don't have to do their job."

NPR considers the rally political, even if Stewart doesn't. The radio network issued a memo forbidding its reporters from attending, lest they appear biased. Rallies, after all, are ultimately defined by who shows up. It's an interesting idea to hold a march for people who don't go to marches — but the folks who turn out could be the sort of people who do go to marches and who want the rally to be less a calming hand on the volume dial of politics than a rebuttal to Beck. (Which is how many people already see it.)

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