Are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert joking? For the Daily Show and Colbert Report hosts, the answer has always been an emphatic yes and no. Their programs, they demur, are just fake-news comedy shows, but ones run on the principle that every joke needs to have an idea behind it.
On Sept. 16, Stewart announced what could be his biggest joke and biggest idea yet. Three weeks after Fox News melodramatist Glenn Beck held his Restoring Honor rally in Washington, Stewart announced his own march on the Mall: the Oct. 30 Rally to Restore Sanity.
The premise: most Americans would be willing to have reasonable discussions about how to solve our problems, but the conversation in the U.S. has been hijacked by the looniest, most intense 15% or so of us the ranters, the ragers, the people who think Obama is a secret Muslim commie or who thought Bush was Hitler. "Why don't we hear from the other 70% to 80%?" Stewart asked. "Most likely because you have s___ to do." For one day, Stewart and Colbert (who will hold the concurrent, tongue-in-cheek March to Keep Fear Alive) aim to give that majority a voice. If it can get a babysitter.
The premise is a joke on its face: a "Million Moderate March," a protest for nonprotesters, channeling the rage of the reasonable. But the idea behind it is dead-on. Like so many of Stewart's and Colbert's gags, it spoofs not just political buffoons but the press that enables them.
After all, the 15 Percenters haven't become so influential alone. We live in the "if it screeds, it leads" era. The way to protest the "insensitivity" of an Islamic center near Ground Zero is to drag a decommissioned missile to the site. The way to get a job in cable news is to accuse a Supreme Court Justice of bestiality. The way to air your differences is to call the President a Kenyan anticolonialist (Newt Gingrich) or Sarah Palin a Taliban mullah (Michael Moore). The press lurches from sideshow to sideshow: we've heard more about Tea Party Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell's positions on masturbation and witchcraft than on how (speaking of magic) she'd balance the budget while cutting taxes.
Media outlets that aren't hiring or promoting the 15 Percenters are cowed by them. On Sept. 11, the Portland (Maine) Press Herald ran a photo and article about local Muslim Americans celebrating the end of Ramadan. After complaints that it had not been "balanced" with a reminder of the 2001 terrorist attacks, the paper's publisher apologized though the human-interest feature was no different from the ones that are run every Easter or Rosh Hashanah.
Every time this happens, the 15 Percenters get a little more powerful. Every time this happens, the incentive scale for journalists and activists is tilted toward thrown stunts and blown gaskets. Pundits start praising politicians' ability to channel their constituents' anger. The movie Network in which a raving, ratings-grabbing television anchor eggs on viewers to get "mad as hell" begins to look less like a cautionary tale and more like an instructional video.
I would not have expected to use the adjective Nixonian to describe Stewart and Colbert. But in trying to give a voice to people who just want America to chill the hell out, they're redefining Nixon's concept of the Silent Majority or as the rally's website calls it, "the Busy Majority." Four days after Stewart made his plans for the rally public, more than 100,000 people had signed up on Facebook to attend.
Christening movements and majorities is a tricky business for funnymen, though: oft the path of righteousness doth lead to Dennis Miller. Stewart went on CNN's Crossfire in 2004 and asked the hosts to "stop hurting America" with shows that celebrated argument; Colbert went in front of the White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2006 with a scathing, in-character routine about journalists' passivity. These moments made them heroes to some, but too much earnestness, as they themselves have said, kills comedy.
One difference here is that Stewart and Colbert are not offering answers; they're saying that their fans are empowered to come up with answers. Another difference is that the rally is mocking the media, as much as anything else, for its fascination with shiny objects through the meta-tactic of creating one. The very idea that in the U.S. today you have to hold a protest to promote rational discourse is absurd. It's funny because it's true.
Stewart's popular image, as National Public Radio once described it, is that of "the last sane man in a world gone mad." He's not not by a long shot. The point of the Oct. 30 rally is to prove that most of us are sane and therefore ignored. But he and Colbert seem to be the last men in the media who know how to build an institution on sanity instead of by chasing the latest flavor of crazy. Are they joking? The question should be, Is America serious?