Compared to the 200,000 plus crowd that showed up for John Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington D.C. on Saturday, the satellite rally of just a few hundred in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park was paltry by comparison.
That was okay. We were a reasonable bunch. We completely understood that Saturdays are for running errands that can’t be done during the week. No one was miffed by the poor turn-out.
Reasonableness. That was what we came for. For three hours, we quietly sat on the grass or the folding camp chairs we brought with us, and watched the rally in Washington on a giant screen to the right of Levitt Pavilion. We laughed when appropriate, applauded heartily, and sang along with the guest performers. We held up our signs: “Intolerance Will Not Be Tolerated.” “I Considered Bringing a Gun, But It Didn’t Seem Appropriate.”
We behaved ourselves.
The Rally to Restore Sanity was more of an entertainment variety show than a political rally, with a diverse assortment of guests from Sheryl Crow to Kareem Abdul Jabbar to a seven-year-old girl who was never named. If it was a send-up of Glenn Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor, his name was never mentioned either.
The rally was not what some finger-wagging pundits were afraid it would be a cheap shot at a “serious” American institution, that being high-minded political rallies. When those pundits get all wound up over comics doing serious things, we fans of the comedically cool smile, we who watch their shows every night on Comedy Central, we know the inside joke about Stewart and Colbert. Hey, pundits, Stewart and Colbert are not about shooting down average American institutions. They’re about shooting down your institution, mainly the mainstream media you represent.
In what was a good-natured tête-à-tête between Stewart, the level-headed host of The Daily Show, and the excitable and irascible Colbert of The Colbert Report, a nuanced, if not so subtle, object lesson emerged. Through musical numbers such as the one that pitted Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) singing “Peace Train” against Ozzy Osbourne singing “Crazy Train;” and comedy skits like an awards ceremony that awarded a “Medal of Reasonableness” to a professional wrestler defending diversity and a “Medal of Fear” to the seven-year-old girl mentioned above; the two satirists parried back and forth, sanity versus fear, fear versus sanity — a sort of Greek play complete with a recitation by the somber Sam Waterston of Law and Order fame.
The object lesson was this: Political discourse does not have to be rancorous. It doesn’t have to be impolite. It’s not about who’s right or who’s wrong. It’s about mutual respect. As Stewart told the crowds filling the Washington Mall, “This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith. Or people of activism, or to look down our noses at the heartland, or passionate argument, or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies.”
The rally’s biggest target, though, was the 24-hour news media, the object of most of Stewart’s and Colbert’s satire on their regular programs. Stewart takes on the media directly on The Daily Show, especially Fox News, whereas Colbert does it more indirectly, through parody, on The Colbert Report.
During one of his more serious moments during the rally, Stewart chastised the chattering classes. “There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats, but those are titles that must be earned … You must have the resume. Not being able to distinguish between real racists and tea partiers, or real bigots and Juan Williams or Rick Sanchez is an insult, not only to those people, but to the racists themselves, who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate — just as the inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims makes us less safe, not more.” (Both Williams and Sanchez were fired, Williams by NPR and Sanchez by CNN, for ethnically disparaging remarks made to other news organizations. )
Following the televised rally, live comedians took to the stage in Levitt Pavilion. The aftershow was anticlimactic, and — considering the rousing speeches Stewart gave — it was somewhat mean-spirited too. The first comic went on a rant about fundamentalist Christians. Wasn’t he listening?
With signs and chairs in tow, half of us left. We had errands to run.