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Laughing on the way to the voting booth

The more I hear Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert talking about their rally scheduled for Saturday on Washington's National Mall, the more I wonder if there is anything that is not a laughing matter in our national life any more.

Actually, laughter might be too active and committed a concept for the kind of consumers of humor that we have become, thanks in large part to TV comedians like David Letterman a generation ago and now Colbert and Stewart, where everything is irony and postmodern mockery. Snickering and smiling as we look down our noses at the targets of their cool, smug ridicule is more our style these days, isn't it?

And now, three days before what looks like it will be a watershed midterm election, this is what tens of thousands of Americans will journey to our nation's capital and gather for on the National Mall: a "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear," hosted by Stewart and Colbert. Note the "and/or fear" — an ironic bit of self-referential undercutting of the title just in case anyone thought a rally in Washington on the eve of a crucial election is something citizens should take seriously or be passionate about.

Stewart and Colbert have been purposefully vague and sarcastic about details of the rally. That hasn't stopped folks like Oprah Winfrey from signing on by paying travel expenses for everyone in the audience for one of Stewart's recent Comedy Central shows.

Nor has it stopped President Barack Obama from agreeing to appear on the Oct. 27 edition of Stewart's "The Daily Show," an act hard to not interpret as anything but an endorsement of the rally. But then, when was the last time the president met a cable show he didn't want to be on? Does the Discovery Channel's "Mythbusters" ring a bell?

Stewart finally answered some questions about the rally last week on CNN's " Larry King Live." He ducked and bobbed and joked and mocked and generally tried to befuddle the aged cable TV icon. But as nimble and steeped in postmodern pop culture references as Stewart is, King managed to elicit more information than anyone else to date.

There was even a moment when King almost stopped Stewart cold with a question that went to the very heart of my concerns about a couple of comedians, no matter how astute their social commentary and satire might be, coming to Washington and trying to stand on the ground made sacred by moral giants like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Are you putting yourself in the same place as Martin Luther King?" he asked.

"What?" Stewart responded, as if King had said something outrageous.

"Well, you're holding a rally in Washington on a Saturday—"

"Let me put it this way," Stewart interjected. "I'm putting myself in the same class as Martin Mull. How about that?"

Ha ha. But Stewart didn't answer the question that pointed exactly to what he is doing in mocking a special place in America's political life — a space where people from across the land gather to voice their grievances and sound their solidarity. But wasn't that perfectly postmodern, using the happenstance of a hack comedian and a civil rights legend having the same first name to use them interchangeably for a fast laugh that would end the uncomfortable line of questioning?

Stewart did offer answers that were more straightforward and informative once you did a little deconstructing.

"This is not a political rally in any way, shape or form," he said. "It is a visceral expression of people fed up with the reflection that they are shown of themselves as a divided people."

When asked what he bases that claim on, the comedian said, "Seventy-five to 80 percent of the country are reasonable people. They get along. They might not agree on things. But they can do things."

And, he continued, "The other 15 percent control it — the dialogue, the legislation. This [rally] is for the people who are too busy, that have jobs and lives, and are tired of their reflection in the media as being a divided country that is ideological and conflicted and fighting. This is for those people. Those people are going to come to Washington, D.C., on Oct. 30."

Beyond the bad math, it is hard to fathom how a rally cooked up in a New York City conference room by a group of cable TV comedy writers is a "visceral expression of people fed up with" the way the media depicts them. They are the medium.

And the comment about his and Colbert's rally being for the "people who ... have jobs and lives" sort of defines media elitism, don't you think?

If you are thinking this is about politics or ideology, forget it. In August, I wrote a highly critical piece about Glenn Beck's rally at the Lincoln Monument, because I felt the Fox News show host was trying to steal the moral authority that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had won by risking his life in the civil rights movement.

I thought it outrageous that this cable TV huckster with his crackpot notions of American history was standing on the ground in our nation's capital that was made sacred by the lives and deaths of leaders like Abraham Lincoln and King.

I was also dismayed that our society had come to this on my generation's watch: Instead of leaders like Lincoln and King, we now come to Washington and stand in the sun by the tens of thousands to listen to fools and charlatans. The electronic media of radio and TV, along with the new world of instant online communication, played a huge role in making them famous and bringing us to this sorry place.

In fairness, I should note that Beck's rally appeared to have huge attendance, though the spin from both sides of the ideological spectrum, along with the National Parks Police's sudden refusal to provide an official estimate, makes it impossible to say with any precision exactly how large the crowd was.

"It is not the Anti-Glenn Beck rally," Stewart said of his event. "It's very similar. What we are doing is we are using the rally format to do the same thing we do with our shows. The message will be a very similar type idea. It's just using the rally through a satirical format."

What we need in this country is not more satire. We have plenty of that. In fact, as a culture, we are amusement-addled and drowning in a sea of stare-at-the-screen snark.

What we need as a nation are jobs and a government that will protect our savings and our homes from the predatory actions of Wall Street and some parts of the banking and mortgage industries. The right way to get that is in the voting booth on Election Day.

But instead of gathering in Washington to try and find the best way to do that on the weekend before a landmark election, tens of thousands will gather in a place where moral giants once walked to see a couple of comics do a stage version of their TV shows.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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