At a moderate conversational level, of course.
On Saturday, tens of thousands of activists and fans are expected to rally on the National Mall at the urging of two cable television comedians whose combined nightly viewership is somewhere south of a primetime repeat of FOX’s “The Simpsons.”
The message of Comedy Central “fake news” personalities Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert blends an ironic dig at political extremism of all stripes, a meeting of generally left-of-center minds, smarty-pants jabs at national media coverage, and a heartfelt – if jokey – appeal for more rational discourse in American politics.
The details of the Oct. 30 rally remain fuzzy – it’s unclear who Stewart and Colbert’s “special guests” will be – but estimates indicate that Comedy Central is expecting 150,000 attendees. The president of the United States has implicitly endorsed the spirit of the event, and even plans a stopover on Stewart's show on the eve of the event. Oprah Winfrey is a fan. And some expected attendees are pushing back hard on the hypothesis that the enormous majority of demonstrators will be politically apathetic young people who merely mosey across the Potomac River from convenient Maryland and Virginia suburbs to check out the festivities -- and wash down a few beers while they’re at it.
So, are the self-described “saners” a political force to be reckoned with, a headache for Democrats desperate to mobilize their base, or merely a collection of devoted slackers seeking a snicker at the Tea Party’s expense?
'I want to go be counted'
Loretta Humble says she is making the 1,300-mile drive from eastern Texas to Washington, D.C., because she’s simply “tired of all the yelling.”
She hardly fits the Stewart/Colbert fan caricature — usually some variation of a skinny-jeaned East Coast college kid whose liberal political views are mainly vehicles for poking fun at “old people” and preaching the injustice of criminalized marijuana use. (Bill O’Reilly, the famed FOX News host and object of Colbert’s lampooned affection, once derided the Comedy Central demographic as “stoned slackers.”)
Humble, on the other hand, is a septuagenarian who co-owns and operates a nursing home in Malakoff, Texas (population: 2,257).
An avid watcher of Stewart’s “The Daily Show” and Colbert’s spin-off “The Colbert Report,” which debuted in October 2005, Humble says that the two comedians’ knack for poking fun at the sheer nastiness of political discourse gives voice to a sentiment that the majority of Americans share.
And they’re no slackers, she says.
“All of a sudden, we said, ‘I want to go be counted,’” Humble said of the rally’s devotees. “’I want to be there and be counted as somebody who is tired of all the meanness, tired of the ranting and biting back and forth in both directions.’”
Marching on Washington is nothing new for another participant, Alison Reardon, a longtime labor activist who says she will be attending the rally with family as well as friends from her far-flung home state of Alaska.
Reardon, who lives in D.C., will march with her 80-year-old mother, who is traveling from North Carolina for the event. The pair last demonstrated together during the Vietnam era. Reardon said that she’s hoping this event will evoke a similar debate about the direction of the country.
“If this is just a merchandizing ploy, that’s not what I’m doing this for,” she said. “What I would like is a real march like those in the 60’s ... where we talk about why we’re striving for a better society, one that’s inclusive.”
Humble and Reardon are both active participants on the Stewart “Rally to Restore Sanity” Facebook page, which serves as a thriving message board for attendees and enthusiasts who swap thoughts on sign ideas, news nuggets, advice on where to stay and how to get around D.C., and even musings on what to wear.
Postings on the site generally mirror the left-of-center leanings of the two shows. (A Pew study in 2007 showed that the GOP was the target of Stewart’s jokes almost three times more often than Democrats over the course of a year.)
But the community can also be gently self-policing. Anti-GOP posts that are peppered with obscenities tend to receive comments urging the poster – borrowing the rhetoric of the rally – to “take it down a notch.”
Is this a joke?
If the two comedians needed confirmation that the Washington, D.C., establishment isn’t quite sure what to make of them, the reaction to Colbert’s Sept. 24 testimony at a Capitol Hill subcommittee hearing probably did the trick. At the invitation of the panel’s Democratic chairman, Colbert appeared in character as a brash, self-absorbed conservative blowhard with a predilection for potty jokes. The No. 2 Democrat in the House called Colbert’s appearance on behalf of migrant farm workers “an embarrassment”; prominent pundits debated the appropriateness of the joke, most labeling it unfunny and disrespectful.
(The goofy testimony wasn’t the first time that Colbert rubbed the D.C. crowd the wrong way. He performed at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, an annual black-tie event attended by the nation’s top political journalists and then-President George W. Bush. His searing critiques of the press and politics were received with scattered awkward giggles by the live audience, for whom the banter might have struck too close to home. The taped appearance became an online phenomenon, with almost 3 million YouTube views in less than 48 hours.)
But while Colbert and the somewhat less acerbic Stewart may not always get laughs from the political class, it’s indisputable that they’ve become relevant stops on the popular media circuit for political figures hoping to reach a certain type of audience.
Stewart’s TV schtick is a cocktail of the host’s self-deprecating banter, jocular lampooning of the political process and the class of journalists who cover it, and his generally earnest – if typically laced with silliness – interviews with newsmakers and entertainers of all kinds.
This month alone, Stewart’s guests have ranged from pop supernova Justin Timberlake, to human piñata and “Jackass” creator Johnny Knoxville, to Republican House Minority whip Rep. Eric Cantor, and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.
Obama’s appearance on Wednesday will be his first since taking the reins as commander in chief.
Colbert, for his part, has interviewed Gov. Mike Huckabee, Bob Dole, Ron Paul, and a plethora of congressional candidates through his heavily edited (and often cringe-inducing) “Better Know a District” series. During the 2008 presidential primary, Democratic candidates John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Obama made brief guest appearances in one episode.
Few relevant politicos go out of their way to make TV appearances just for giggles. Most have their eyes on the shows’ high levels of viewership by a key but difficult-to-mobilize bloc of educated young people. The programs’ ratings with the elusive demographic of young people age 18-34 are high; the numbers with young men specifically are even higher.
A frequently cited 2004 study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that about 20 percent of people under age 30 said that they regularly learned something about the presidential campaign from comedy shows like The Daily Show. Fully half of young people said that they at least sometimes picked up new information about the campaign from the programs.
And — according to the surprising amount of scholarly work that has been conducted on the fake news shows — when they learn it, they appear to hold on to it.
A 2004 study conducted at Indiana University showed that The Daily Show, on average, featured no less “substance” — information about the issues and policy preferences of candidates and political parties — than network news shows.
In a follow-up study, the team led by assistant professor Julia Fox found that viewers were more likely to remember sound bites presented in Stewart’s comedic format than those aired on more traditional broadcasts.
In other words, if you watched similar reports on Stewart’s program and a network news program, says Fox, “you’d be presented with equivalent information, but you’d probably actually learn more from The Daily Show.”
So, do they vote?
Reardon, the labor activist, says that she has been contacted about the rally by friends around the country who are eager to attend. “They’re all very engaged,” she said. “They’re all informed voters.”
Research shows that’s an accurate picture. Regular viewers of the two comedy shows scored in the highest percentile in the 2007 Pew study that measured knowledge of current events. Those who knew the least? Viewers of network morning shows, local broadcasts, and FOX News.
“There’s nothing to suggest that these viewers are disengaged from the political process,” said Fox, the Indiana University professor.
Reardon believes that the rally’s energy could re-activate Democrats who became politically involved during Obama’s presidential campaign but have been frustrated with Republican obstruction of his change agenda.
“A lot of the people that are coming are the same people who got engaged with Obama and are angry or disappointed, and they’ve had no place to show it,” said Reardon, who added that attendees have been using online message boards to encourage each other to vote early before they head to Washington.
Humble said that — even though she is hugely outnumbered as a Democratic leaner in overwhelmingly Republican Henderson County — she has already cast her ballot in the state’s less competitive races because she has always viewed voting as a civic duty.
That’s a sentiment that she thinks most of her fellow “saners” share.
“There are some kids that are going to want to come to [the rally] to party, sure,” she said. “But for the most part, these are people that really would like to be idealistic, who really believe that something could be right. They’re tired of being discouraged.”