All photos courtesy of huffingtonpost.com
An overwhelming sight would have greeted the eyes of curious passersby on Oct. 30 as they toured America’s capital. They would have come across a group approximately 200,000 strong at the base of the Washington Monument sporting signs with curious mantras such as “This sign means nothing” and “Tea parties are for little girls”— carried by people dressed no less curiously, as anything from superheroes to American flags. All of these disgruntled civilians had gathered looking to find something they believed to have been lost — what a better place to do it than at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear?
The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear is a direct response to conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor that took place on the same date, Aug. 28, and at the same location where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech 47 years ago. Beck and fellow Tea Party icon Sarah Palin stood before a sea of activists and “championed a religious brand of patriotism.” The Washington Post said the event “called the nation to recommit itself to traditional values he [Beck] said ‘were hallmarks of its exceptional past.”
“Something that is beyond man is happening,” Beck said. “America today begins to turn back to God.” The event was billed as “nonpolitical,” and Beck steered clear of the partisan commentary that has made him a hero to many conservatives and a nemesis to many on the left. But political overtones were unmistakable and the rally drew an enormous crowd.
When Jon Stewart got wind of such a rally, he posted a message on his Twitter account that he was going to throw a rally in response — not a rally to restore honor, but a rally to restore sanity.
Jeremy Blackowiak attended the rally, and as a thesis student writing on stand-up comedy, he had a lot to say about this particular event and its importance in comedy and politics. “It doesn’t mean that I have an especially poignant or informed opinion, but it is something that I give a lot of attention to and care about specifically,” he rationalized.
“A lot of popular comedians felt that this Rally to Restore Honor was kind of terrible and hilarious,” Blackowiak began. “It was a great opportunity to open up a satirical dialogue about the nature of U.S. politics and news media. The nature of the rally is a parody, but parody like all comedy is about satire. Comedy is political.”
On the event’s website, Stewart posted his intention and purpose in throwing the rally. It was clearly comedically focused, but just like with Glenn Beck’s rally, with unmistakable political undertones. “We’re looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler,” he wrote. “Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles.”
What started as The Daily Show’s Rally to Restore Sanity evolved to become the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear when Stephen Colbert joined the campaign as a “fear mongerer,” hosting a countering rally — the March to Keep Fear Alive. Colbert stated that now was not the time to be reasonable, exclaiming “Now is the time for all good men to freak out for freedom!”
Throughout the rally Colbert expressed, as his parodic character, that fear was superior to Stewart’s reasonableness. The theme started with Colbert — costumed like Evel Knievel —emerging from his “fear bunker” in a capsule reminiscent of the 2010 Chilean miners’ rescue. Thereafter, Colbert challenged Stewart point by point, usually claiming victory, stating that “fear always wins.”
“One of their battles centered around songs about trains,” Blackowiak reminisced. “Jon Stewart started with Cat Stevens singing ‘Peace Train,’ which was interrupted continually by Colbert-backed Ozzy Osbourne singing ‘Crazy Train.’ Eventually, they compromised on The O’Jays singing ‘Love Train.’”
“Fundamentally, the rally to me was about demonstrating the historical and ongoing power and relevance of comedy in the political and social spheres of the United States,” Blackowiak said. “There was this ongoing message that the mainstream news media are kind of poisoning the way we look at politics — reinforcing the two party system that is keeping its choking corporate hold on everything we do. Like win or lose, in this past election for example, a lot of people — a lot of New College students feel like no matter how blue we vote we are still electing corporate shells.”
So the rally went: Colbert as a fear mongerer and Stewart a representation of reasonableness, speaking out against public media and its tendency to transform trivial issues into matters of most pressing importance. “It was all about the news media, and how they have the responsibility to verify facts and they don’t,” Blackowiak argued. “They can deny relevance to social commentaries by comedic figures such as Stewart, but still so often they make themselves the brunt of the joke.”
“I called it the comedy Super Bowl, but it didn’t end up that way,” he said. “Instead it was more like a church service. It was a lot of people gathered as a congregation, not as an audience, working together to reach the point of the sermon — a conversation as much as a performance.”
Blackowiak’s views on comedy seemed to align closely to Stewart’s and Colbert’s as he explained to the Catalyst a possible role of New College’s humor as well. “Comedy at New College is something very important,” he said. “A very valuable part about the New College culture is its sense of humor and how we use it. The Midnight Debates, for example, were a s—storm, but even after the fact it was recognized that the heckling and humor was maybe a bit much, it still has a place and needs to have a place. People need to not take themselves so seriously. It could really alleviate a lot of pressure, laughing. It’s good for the soul.”
“It is what the rally represents that is important,” he continued. “In order to analyze and understand the state of comedy’s involvement in our politics right now, you have to ignore the money that is sponsoring it in the way you have to ignore air resistance in a physics problem. We are this new generation that has quick access to any sort of media all the time, so politicians need to be a lot more responsible because if they say anything, anywhere, any person can access it at any time — sometimes even from their phone.”
Indeed, that is exactly the issue that Stewart emphasized. At the end of the Rally, after all the comedy and performances, he closed on an uncharacteristically serious note, summing the entire point of the rally in a brief and poignant narrative. “The media, the country’s 24-hour, political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder,” he said. “The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen. Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the dangerous, unexpected flaming ants epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing … because we know, instinctively, as a people, that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light, we have to work together. And the truth is there will always be darkness, and sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land, it’s just … New Jersey.”