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Jon Stewart’s rally raises questions about comedian’s role

October 29, 2010

Stewart

Jon Stewart and Glenn Beck have a few things in common. The liberal and conservative cable hosts each described their respective rallies on the National Mall—whether to "restore honor" or "restore sanity"—as nonpolitical events. Neither walks in lockstep with Democrats or Republicans. And both often claim to simply be entertainers, while at the same time never shying away from weighty subjects like the economy and terrorism.

For a day in August, Beck toned down the anti-Obama rhetoric he might use on Fox News. Still, Beck's event had the feel of a tea party rally, with speakers like Sarah Palin drawing cheers from the flag-waving crowd. And Stewart, who's holding his Rally to Restore Sanity on Saturday with fellow Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert, is expected to draw large numbers of attendees from the opposite end of the political spectrum. (Colbert, who plays Stewart's faux-nemesis on "The Colbert Report," had originally announced a mock rival event "to keep fear alive," but permit difficulties reportedly scuttled plans, so the two hosts will now apparently be sharing the stage at Stewart's gathering.)

As was the case with the Beck event, commentators and critics are having a hard time trying to pin down exactly what Stewart is up to this week leading into the event. The Comedy Central host sat down with President Obama and has regularly touted the show's effort to assemble (as Beck also claimed to) disaffected individuals seeking sanity from the hyper-charged political atmosphere and 24/7 news cycle.

Stewart has recently been described as the following: a talk show host,  a comedian, a media critic,  "America's anchor-in-waiting," "the court jester and mouthpiece for the folks senior White House officials described as the 'professional left,'" and a clever entertainer taking part in a "publicity stunt meant to promote two TV shows." If the last decade belonged to Stewart—as New York magazine suggested last month—where does he go from there?

StewartSo all eyes will be on Stewart this weekend, with supporters and critics watching to see if the comedian and cable host, who skewers political figures nightly, emerges as one himself. Can Stewart keep the gags going without crossing the line into (much less funny) self-righteousness? And how will the press cover Stewart, who typically enjoys fawning coverage from the national media, if he diverges at all from the public persona that he's built into a franchise?

The Line-up: Comedy Central is keeping details very close to the vest. The network turned down pre-rally interview requests and won't confirm the names of performers now floating out there. But the Christian Science Monitor got a hold of a document from the National Parks Service that provides a glimpse into how the day might play out.

The Roots--the house band for Jimmy Fallon's "Late Night" show--are expected to perform at noon, leading up to a to-be-determined comedian at 12:40 p.m. Stewart arrives on stage at 1:05 p.m., with Colbert appearing 15 minutes later. Also, the Monitor reports that comedian Don Novello and actor Sam Waterston will do readings, with musicians such as  Jeff Tweedy and Sheryl Crow performing, as well.

Riding with Arianna: There's always a controversy about crowd size at the National Mall—estimates of Beck's rally ranged from high five figures to a half million. But it's clear there will be at least 10,000 people coming from New York City, courtesy of the Huffington Post. Arianna Huffington, the site's co-founder and editor-in-chief, made an off-the-cuff pledge to drive rally-goers to Washington D.C. during an appearance on the "Daily Show," Now, the Huffington Post has lined up 212 buses leaving from the Mets Citi Field at 6 a.m. Saturday. (The buses will be packed with snacks and drinks donated by POM Wonderful, Stonyfield Yogurt and Coca-Cola).

"There's a real sense of excitement, not just among young people," Huffington told The Upshot. "There's no place I've been to where people don't talk about the rally. They burst into a spontaneous applause about the rally."  Huffington clearly doesn't agree with some news outlets warning staff not to attend out of concerns that doing so would jeopardize their status as above-the-fray objective reporters. "For the mainstream media to tell journalists you can't attend this rally is saying you're agnostic on sanity," she said.

Media frenzy: Even if some  journalists are advised to steer clear, there will be plenty of reporters and photographers on hand to cover the gathering. The New York Times reported Friday that 1,000 journalists applied for press credentials. Comedy Central gave out 400 in the end, sending several to foreign journalists from Japan Switzerland and Russia. Former Clinton aide and Comedy Central consultant Craig Minassian told The Times that he "can't think of a lot of events that have generated this kind of interest."

Of course, there was another one fairly recently. The organizers of Beck's rally gave out more than 450 credentials, according to a source with knowledge of the event. There were also international requests from several countries, including England, Italy and Japan. And one more similarity: C-SPAN, which carried Beck's rally live, will also be the place to watch Stewart for anyone not making it to the capital.

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