11/02/2010 02:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Comedy at the Center: Why Jon Stewart Is Actually For Real

This past weekend, somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 Americans gathered on the National Mall for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. By all accounts -- size, scope, celebrity guest appearances, media coverage, blogosphere buzz, YouTube cell-phone-camera uploads, etc. -- the event was a resounding success. Stewart struck a nerve. Prominent political commentators on both sides of the table have taken the event seriously, viewing it as a barometer of the 'reasonable majority' at the center of American politics whose views are rarely amplified amidst the polarity of partisan debate.

We're so close to "getting it."

Yet in the two days since the event, a narrative has emerged that misses the point entirely -- and it's picking up steam.

"They're just comedians," this story goes. "Ultimately, they're insubstantial."

No. No, no, no, no, no.

And I'm not saying "no" because being a comedian is some kind of vital social force, some inherently meaning-laden calling. I'm saying "no" because it's precisely the fact that Stewart and Colbert are comedians that makes a rally like this possible. Indeed, it's precisely the fact that Stewart and Colbert are comedians that has allowed them to position themselves as voices of reason over the last half-decade, and has allowed them to call out our uber-partisan content-devoid media machine for what it is.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's examine what people have been saying. On this very website, Raj Patel described the end result of the Stewart rally as a muted buzz of "polite laughter," claiming it was "impotent" and, in essence, expressing disappointment over the apolitical tone of the entire event.

"Perhaps I'm asking too much," he lamented. "Perhaps the politics can and should come some other time, and not from Comedy Central."

Meanwhile, Frances Martel over at Mediaite claimed:

There is an immutable truth about Stewart that, while not strong enough to make his words hollow, lend no weight to his message: if those shouting heads on cable news stop shouting, and Americans start working together for the greater good of the nation, Stewart (and Colbert) would be out of a job in a heartbeat.

It was Robert Reich, however, who summed up the issue most succinctly. In a short post decrying the lack of respect abounding in contemporary political discourse, he said:

...the vitriol emanating at all hours from rage radio, yell television, and Fox News -- against immigrants, intellectuals, "coastal elites," gays, and the President.

We're better than this.

This is not respectful disagreement. It's thuggery. It has no legitimate role in a democracy. And most Americans are fed up with it.

Sadly, we needed two comedians to remind us.

Reich's point is well-taken. But it's far from "sad" that two comedians had to remind us of it -- had to awaken us, in fact, to the severity of this mind-numbing cacophony in the first place. Indeed, they're the only ones who could!

All of this partisan horn-blowing we're lamenting comes about, as we well know, because news organizations have to erect narratives in order to earn money. The market for pure informational news is, obviously, small. FOX, MSNBC, CNN, and their ilk are all in constant peril of the viewer getting bored and switching the channel to the latest episode of Glee, because those networks operate along the same axis as entertainment television.

We are familiar with how this line of thinking pans out. Human beings love stories, and human beings love to be entertained. So as news organizations find themselves more and more obligated to entertain their audiences, the nature of their reporting will trend more and more toward an easily-digestible narrative, replete with story arcs, factions, the concept of "momentum" -- and of course, good guys and bad guys.

It is no surprise, then, that the calling-out of this "thuggery" comes from outside that established system. The news networks themselves can't do it, because they have to compete!

Now, let's take a step back for a moment and contrast this with the Daily Show model. Stewart and Colbert generate their entertainment value through different means. They tell jokes. They lampoon things. The news itself doesn't have to be what's entertaining, because Stewart and Colbert and their writers have license to be entertaining.

Far from what Martel claims, it's not Jon Stewart who would be out of a job if Americans stopped shouting. Indeed, he had a job before the Daily Show -- and if former Daily Show correspondent Steve Carrell is any indication, he'd have no problem getting a job afterward. No, it's Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly who wouldn't have jobs.

That isn't to say that Stewart and Colbert's brand of journalism isn't without flaws, and it's not to say it isn't problematic along a different set of axes. Stewart felt obligated -- in his speech at his event -- to apologize for being sincere, and even in the midst of a heartfelt and very poignant diagnosis of the contemporary media climate he had to pepper his talk with jokes. Unlike others, Stewart stares up at a ceiling that limits how grave he can get away with being at any given moment, and that ceiling hangs very, very low.

But if, as David Foster Wallace pointed out, irony is television's natural end, maybe this limit, this omnipresent self-consciousness, isn't such a bad thing. Certainly it's preferable to whatever attempts today's talking heads have drummed up to summarize immensely complex issues via easily-digestible allegiance-affirming sound-bytes.

Maybe, just maybe, we're growing up.