Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert: Satirists, Organisers of the Rally to Restore Sanity

By Lewis-Hasteley, Helen | New Statesman (1996), January 9, 2012 | Go to article overview

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert: Satirists, Organisers of the Rally to Restore Sanity


Lewis-Hasteley, Helen, New Statesman (1996)


At lpm on a cold Saturday afternoon, Jon Stewart stepped on stage on the Mall in Washington, DC and looked out at the crowd. More than 200,000 people looked back. The date was 30 October 2010 and it marked the moment when the host of The Daily Show - a late-night satirical programme on a relatively small cable channel - moved from mocking US politics to trying to shape its direction. Stewart and his protege Stephen Colbert had been so incensed by the inflammatory rhetoric of Glenn "Obama Is Racist" Beck and others at the 90,000-strongTea Party rally "to restore America" on the same spot two months earlier that they decided to hold their own.

On The Daily Show, Stewart outlined his plan. Instead of signs comparing Obama to the Nazis, or declaring that "Socialism Kills", he wanted niceness to be the order of the day. His suggested sign? "I Disagree With You But I'm Pretty Sure You're Not Hitler". Thousands answered the call, many with their own placards: "I HATE TAXES - But I like Roads, Firemen, some cops, traffic lights, National Parks, the Coast Guard ... So I pay them anyway!". It wasn't so much the silent majority as the sarcastic minority.

This is Stewart's "base" -middle-class, well-educated Americans, tired of the country's drift to the right and the cheapening of public debate caused by Fox News's agenda-driven coverage and the he-said, she-said banalities of rolling news channels. The Daily Show might be a comedy programme - "the show that leads in to me is puppets making crank phone calls", Stewart once observed - but research by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism found that its viewers were better informed about politics than those of any of its rivals. The opening monologues are often crammed with facts on "dry" subjects such as the minimum wage, the cost of America's foreign wars or taxes paid by US billionaires.

Stewart defends liberal-left causes such as health-care reform and the right to strike without backing them explicitly: his speciality is producing the killer fact, or archive clip, that undermines the right's argument. He once sliced and diced Condoleezza Rice over her claim that no one in the Bush White House gave any thought to what might happen if al-Qaeda attacked the US because the possibility seemed so remote. Cut to a clip from her testimony to the 9/11 commission, where she confessed to receiving a briefing in August 2001 titled "Bin Laden determined to attack inside the United States".

It is in interviews that the comic mask sometimes slips: Stewart told the studio audience to stop clapping for him in a fractious encounter with John Bolton, the former ambassador to the UN, because it was getting in the way of his Paxman-style inquisition. …

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