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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Stewart has called the rally a Million Moderate March, but he's really not an advocate for politically moderate views so much as he is for expressing views in a moderate tone of voice. It's a natural outgrowth of his 2004 Crossfire comments, when he asked why cable news was bludgeoning people with "shows with titles such as Crossfire or Hardball or I'm Going to Kick Your Ass." It's a worldview born of the culturally conservative idea that journalism should hold itself to higher standards than chasing ratings. For guys whose shows have no shortage of penis jokes — and are commercial, ratings-minded enterprises themselves — he and Colbert take this stuff very seriously.

For instance, it was The Daily Show that in August made a point rarely mentioned in the fracas over the Park51 Islamic center: that Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a Saudi who has been criticized for funding radical Muslim organizations — and whom Fox was aggressively tying to the mosque project — is the second biggest shareholder in News Corp., Fox's corporate parent. "If we want to cut off funding to the terror mosque," Stewart joked, "we must, together as a nation, stop watching Fox." And while Colbert's cutting-up got most of the attention during his congressional hearing, a more striking moment came as he broke character when asked why he chose to testify. "I like talking about people who don't have any power," he said. "You know, 'Whatsoever you did for the least of my brothers.' And these seemed like the least of my brothers right now."

Are They Serious?

That earnest streak makes even some supporters worry that Stewart and Colbert may turn into the kind of self-serious pundits they parody. It's a valid point but one that sells short the difficulty of what they are trying to do: get people excited about calming down, provide a voice for people who don't scream, show there's a reasonable middle ground between apathy and zealotry.

Others have criticized the rally in advance as a nihilistic joke that puts its principles in air quotes and mocks serious activism. Stewart does have a history of falling back on the "We're just a comedy show" defense when confronted. But The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have always used their irony in the service of real ideas. Colbert's congressional testimony was ridiculous and sincere at once — the in-character performance every bit as "serious" as his straight statement. The idea that the rally is absurd (We're mild as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore!) doesn't mean it's phony.

Stewart and Colbert have managed to do something on TV that political broadcasters have talked about for decades: create a non-insane answer to talk radio, substituting humor for sputtering rage. Whether the rally — the content of which is still mostly a secret — can advance that cause is a fair question. (The organizers have upped their permit estimate from 25,000 to 60,000 attendees, although nobody knows how many of the 200,000-plus who clicked I'M ATTENDING on the rally's Facebook page will show — or how they'll behave.) But while the hard part of politics is actually making decisions, talking like grownups is an essential part of it. And if there's one thing Stewart and Colbert have taught us, it's that sometimes you have to laugh to keep yourself from screaming.

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