The politics of parody

Could the Stewart and Colbert rallies play a hand in the American political landscape?

Jon Stewart Stephen Colbert 311 AP (photo credit: Associated Press)
Jon Stewart Stephen Colbert 311 AP
(photo credit: Associated Press)
As the US approaches the midterm elections, one of the most interesting media events (or stunts, as some might call it) is unfolding. They’re not strictly political, but might have implications on the political landscape. The episodes in question are the combined “Rally to Restore Sanity” and “March to Keep Fear Alive” by comedians Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert which are due to take place, simultaneously, at the Washington Mall on October 30.
Stewart’s The Daily Show is a nightly comedy program which pokes fun at both the news and the media which cover it. Colbert’s The Colbert Report, which was spun off from Stewart’s show, copies the format half an hour later. The main difference is that Colbert uses a “conservative” slant when he’s in character.
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Both shows have found success and have managed to successfully parody the formats, language and visual methods used by the 24-hour news cycle in the US.
The rallies themselves are a direct response to another gathering which took place on the same spot just months ago. Conservative TV and radio host Glenn Beck held his “Restoring Honor” rally at the end of August. It was more like an old-time religious revival than a political rally, but nonetheless addressed the Republican base. While there’s debate on the attendance estimates, it’s safe to say that tens of thousands showed up.
Also worth mentioning is the “One Nation” rally, held by liberal groups in Washington DC on October 2. Organizers say they were planning this event in April and it was not arranged as a response to Beck’s. But unlike “Restoring Honor,” this was strictly political and as left-wing a gathering as you’ll be seeing in the US. Once again, without getting into the numbers debate, many attended.
SO HERE come comedians Stewart and Colbert with their events being promoted as tongue-in-cheek as possible.
Stewart is saying tone down the rhetoric, keep politics civil.
“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. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles,” said Stewart.
Colbert, on the other hand, is taking the pseudo-conservative role to counter Stewart. The rationale from the event’s site: “America, the greatest country God ever gave Man, was built on three bedrock principles: freedom, liberty, and fear – that someone might take our freedom and liberty... They [Stewart] want to replace our fear with reason. But never forget – ‘reason’ is just one letter away from ‘treason.’ Coincidence? Reasonable people would say it is, but America can’t afford to take that chance.”
This is biting political satire and they’re taking it to the streets – but why is this so important? Well, it seems they’re getting everyone upset. Left-wingers are saying these rallies make light of the real issues, while folks on the Right feel that this is a method to get out the vote and, to quote Beck, “to get them to vote for the unions.”
The amount of coverage the rallies are getting is staggering, considering this is not supposed to be an event with “real-world” implications. It’s parody. But as famed thespian Peter Ustinov once said, “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.”
The most interesting aspect of these events is that their meaning is totally open for interpretation, and I won’t even try to put any label on them except to say I think it’s a brilliant idea. But could these events play a hand in the American political landscape? There might not be a revolution in the making but, on the surface, the rallies claim to represent the people who are getting a bit tired of both the Democrats and Republicans, so will it mean something if half a million people show up from all over the country? It just might.
I ENVY TV viewers in the States for having such cutting-edge political satire. We do have Eretz Nehederet [It’s a wonderful land], which is well done, but it’s a weekly show which devotes only about half of its time to parodying current events, while relying on some dead-on imitations as much as sharp writing.
Surely anyone following the news in Israel realizes how much material there would be for an Israeli Daily Show.
As for keeping politics civil in the Holy Land, well, you only have to look at our elected officials on shouting-match TV programs such as Politica or Moetzet Ha’hahamim to see how that just might be a lost cause.
The writer is an independent media consultant, an adjunct lecturer at IDC Herzliya’s School of Communications, and a former producer at the Fox News Channel in New York.