Jon Stewart’s Rally and Relevance

by journojames on January 18, 2012

Originally posted Nov. 7, 2010

The Daily Show’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” event in Washington D.C. this Saturday is expected to attract over 70,000 people, illustrating how influential – intended or not – comedian and satirist Jon Stewart has become in the landscape of American politics.

President Obama and John Stewart, Photo courtesy of N.Y. Times

The high projected numbers for Stewart’s rally, that will also include comedic co-host Stephen Colbert, could be seen as evidence of how frustrated many Americans feel about the current extreme divisive state of political discourse in the country. More likely though, it is a barometer of Stewart’s popularity.

His ability to connect with a large audience has turned his “rally for people who’ve been too busy to go to rallies” into a worldwide event. Despite the fact that people seem to be unclear about what exactly the rally would provide, they want to participate. On Facebook, more than 290,000 have signed up as potential attendees. Satellite events around the country in more than 25 states, in cities like Wasila, Denver, and Atlanta have been quickly organized in order to be involved. And even places around the world, including Paris, Denmark, and a “base camp” at Mt. Everest in Nepal will join the main gathering at the National Mall.

Stewart, 47, seems amused by the thought of his own fame and cultural significance. “You make me sound like a toilet (laughing),” he said recently on an appearance of CNN’s Larry King Live, when King referred to him as an American fixture. But his imprint in popular American culture is no joke.

Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart's Rally Posters

Stewart, as host of the mock TV news program the Daily Show since 1999, has become one of the most trusted news identities on television. He also came in on top of AskMen.com’s 2010 ranking of the fifty most influential men of the year. According to the poll, he has become the national voice of reason, having taken on the important responsibility of pointing out inconsistencies and irrationalities of our government, policies and leaders, while presenting all of it in an accessible way that entertains and engages the masses.

His show, which is seen by more than 3.5 million viewers every day, is also influencing and changing the way that politicians are using the show’s unique brand of “gotcha journalism” in their campaigns during this year’s elections, as evident in this commercial from California gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown.

The initial evidence of Stewart’s political clout can be traced back to 2003, when former Senator John Edwards announced his presidential candidacy on his show. Other candidates soon followed, making appearances, like Senators John Kerry and John McCain, raising the show’s profile and relevance in political conversations. Recently, President Barack Obama, who has been a frequent guest on the show, gave his blessing and endorsed the rally. This all seems contradictory for a show whose sole purpose is to find and critically make fun of the foolishness found in Washington D.C.

There is nothing new about comedians mocking and poking fun at politicians. However, what has changed is that entertainment shows are now becoming a forum for serious policy issues and young viewers are watching in numbers. A study in 2004 by the Pew Research Center discovered that almost as many people under 30, 21 percent, relied on comedy shows such as Stewart’s for information about the presidential campaign as relied on the networks’ evening news programs, 23 percent.

Politics is Fun

Media analysts agree with the findings and say the influence of comedians is on the rise at a time when traditional news outlets are losing audiences to the internet and mobile devices, and comics, like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, are now there filling a void.

While many media experts believe Stewart will continue to make an impact in the country’s political discourse, others say that this rally could actually hurt and undermine his influence. They point out that comedians draw their power from their status as outsiders, but once they are seen as serious and part of the establishment, their humor loses any power to persuade.

Whether this event turns out to be merely entertainment or a spark for longer-term activism by the participants remains to be seen, but what is clear is that the rally, while originally intended for jest, is seriously showing Jon Stewart’s relevance in American culture and politics.

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