Red Tape vs. Sanity at Jon Stewart's Rally

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Photo: Photo Illustration: Comedy Central/Andrei Kallaur

It was very nearly the Rally to Nowhere. For months, Jon Stewart had been planning to stage a parody of Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally, even putting down a deposit on the Lincoln Memorial. But a paperwork glitch threatened to derail the entire project.

“We got a call back yesterday: ‘Yeah, the lady who did your permit application, she didn’t realize — the Lincoln Memorial is closed, starting October 1,’” a panicked-sounding Stewart told me in early September. He considered asking to use the U.S. Capitol steps, but that would mean enlisting the help of politicians. Days later the location crisis was solved, with Stewart landing a spot at the east end of the National Mall (a spokeswoman for the National Parks Service says the agency dealt only with Daily Show representatives).

So this Saturday, the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear will … well, even Stewart is still figuring out exactly what it will be. How big a crowd will show up is anybody’s guess — though Stewart and Colbert are considering having the crowd count off one-by-one, kindergarten style, as a goof on the arguments over crowd estimates at conventional rallies.

Will the event energize the millions of younger, Democrat-leaning fans of Stewart and Stephen Colbert? Or will it dilute get-out-the-vote efforts three days before the midterm elections? The hand-wringing over “real-world impact” is pretty silly; if a couple of comedians change the results on Election Day, then the country really is in deep trouble.

Stewart doesn’t much care about possible electoral ramifications and larger meaning. For all his earnestness about civic responsibility, and his obvious preference for left-of-center policy, Stewart is in show business. What has triggered his insomnia is creating a three-hour show that isn't lame. There will be live music from the Roots, Jeff Tweedy, and Sheryl Crow, and comedy, including Don Novello, better known as Father Guido Sarducci. There won’t be any speeches from politicians. And it wouldn’t be shocking if Stewart’s Jersey-shore buddy, Bruce Springsteen, makes an appearance.

The guiding concept, though, has been clear from the beginning. “It’s theater,” Stewart told me. “We’ve done these events before. This is what we used to do in New Hampshire [during the presidential primary]."

But the scale, and the expectations, and the symbolism, and the timing of the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear is vastly different. Oprah is flying 200 Daily Show audience members to Washington; Arianna Huffington is renting 200 buses; President Barack Obama appeared on Stewart’s show last night. Stewart has, until now, been careful about crossing the line from satire to overt activism and preachiness. The Rally could, at the very least, jump over the line before hopping back. “Yeah, it’s a little more dangerous,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s activist as much as it would be cathartic. Just sending out a little message: There are other people like you who think things are a little extreme. It’s not, ‘You must vote Democratic, you must vote Republican.’ It’s not legalize pot or any of that kind of stuff. I still think as long as we do it and make it funny and satirical, we’ll be okay. Though I could be kidding myself.”

Beck’s rally was the primary inspiration, but another motivation is also at work: comedic envy. Last summer, when Conan O’Brien’s “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour” came to Radio City, Stewart and Colbert took the stage for a “dance-off.” “Conan’s tour was just spectacle,” Stewart said, sounding in awe months later. “Being a stand-up, you play theaters that have had Foghat or somebody like that, so there’s a soundboard and all this shit. And all you’ve got are a stool and a bottle of water, and you want people to sit there for an hour and a half. You wish you at least had a couple of smudge pots. The idea that Conan went out there and put on a SHOW! As a comedian, you’re like, ‘Wow!’”

Stewart’s rally will certainly be a spectacle. But so was Evel Knievel’s attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon. “You either have a deft hand with it or you don’t,” Stewart said. “You can butcher it. That’s the danger of it. That’s also the excitement of it.”

Daily Intel will have full coverage of the Rally to Restore Sanity beginning on Saturday. Click here for more.