November 2, 2010

Cat, Ozzy and Apolitics: Stewart’s Mixed Bag

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At 3:15 a.m. this past Saturday, I boarded a chartered bus with a large group of Cornellians. We settled into our seats, hoping to get some rest during the six and a half hour drive ahead of us: we were headed down to Washington D.C. to restore some sanity … or, I suppose, keep fear alive.

It occurred to most of us that our eagerness to attend was almost entirely unaffected by our cluelessness of what the rally would entail; the details had been kept intentionally vague, and while I suppose we imagined something along the lines of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s usual brand of satire, none of us really knew what to expect.

Our bus arrived in D.C. around 10 a.m., and after a brief jaunt on the D.C. metro, we found ourselves on the National Mall. Although the rally was to begin in less than two hours, the mall had yet to fill up; thankfully, a few friends and I were able to make our way to a spot not too far from the stage.

Promptly at noon, the rally began.

The rally was something of a whirlwind of guests, with notable appearances (mostly musical) from John Legend & The Roots, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman from MythBusters, Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) and Ozzy Osbourne, Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, R2D2 and more. Needless to say, the rally had a star-studded cast.

An impressive list of appearances, coupled with an eager crowd and humorous hosts, made for an exciting rally — the three hours went by quicker than expected. But while I thoroughly enjoyed the rally, I walked away feeling a bit underwhelmed by the whole ordeal, as if some great opportunity to truly communicate something important with the estimated 215,000 people gathered there had been lost. I couldn’t help but think that while the rally had been fun, the central message — that political discourse in this country ought to be more rational and measured in tone — was muddled by an excessive display of theatrics, even by Stewart and Colbert standards.

The confluence of two decisions made by the rally’s creators, in my opinion, contributed to a rally in which the strongest message was supplied by the audience rather than the hosts. First, the decision to have “dueling” rallies (this would later morph into one “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear”) proved to be conceptually difficult, with neither Stewart’s call for rationality nor Colbert’s fear mongering given enough time develop into any meaningful thesis/antithesis. Secondly, the rally was scripted to be ostensibly apolitical, and while this may have been done to “play things safe” in the eyes of rally critics, or to make the rally more accessible to people across the political spectrum (both worthy goals), in practice, the result was banter that was more silly than substantive.

In particular, these two decisions most directly affected Colbert’s character, with whom I was ultimately the most disappointed. During his show, Colbert presents himself as a biting parody of conservative television hosts — it was this sort of satire that made his show an effective counterpoint to The Daily Show, and also made the rally so potentially appealing as a rebuttal to Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor. Unfortunately, the depoliticized Colbert had little material to rely on other than childish antics, focusing more on his fear of robots and trains than socialists, Marxists or homosexuals.

Am I asking too much from these two comedians? Possibly. But what makes The Daily Show and The Colbert Report so brilliant is their balance between humor and intellect — you laugh at the antics and hypocrisy they ridicule, but simultaneously sober up with the knowledge that their segments are based on reality. They’re comedians, yes, but comedians who have built their careers on using humor to encourage their audiences to re-examine politics and the media. So while the rally may have been entertaining, the cerebral quality of Stewart and Colbert’s humor was sorely missed.

Fifteen minutes before the rally ended, Stewart took the stage and spoke more seriously to the audience, explicitly calling for rationality in not just our politics, but our everyday lives. It was a nice touch, to end a rally that had been otherwise fairly slapstick on a contemplative and encouraging note. But what stood out to me the most was when Stewart told the audience that our attendance is what made the event successful. Maybe there was no need for hard-hitting political satire. Maybe the fact that nearly a quarter of a million people had gathered in the name of sanity was enough of a statement in and of itself — at that point, the only remaining task was to enjoy ourselves. It’s hard to say whether or not the Rally to Restore Sanity accomplished its goals — harder still when it’s unclear what exactly those goals were. But considering yesterday’s election, goodness knows we’re going to need all the sanity we can muster.

David Murdter is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at dmurdter@cornellsun.com. Murphy’s Lawyer appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: David Murdter