Monday, December 6, 2010

Dear Jon Stewart

Dear Jon Stewart,

I’ve had to think a long time about my reaction to your Rally to Restore Sanity back on Oct. 30. Don’t be bothered by the long pause; I’m a slow thinker. I hadn’t really been able to sort through my feelings over it, because I knew I was disappointed, but didn’t WANT to have been disappointed. This rally had so many people counting on it, me with them, maybe more than most. When you announced the Rally, my first reaction was, “When and where? I’m there.” I had a lot of faith that this was going to be the defining moment of my generation. We had the primary satirist in the country telling us about ourselves straight up, and we needed to hear ALL about ourselves. You could feel the hunger for direction. My guess is that you knew how keenly disappointed America has been for the last year or so. Like Michael J. Fox said in “The American President,” we’ll cross the desert looking for leadership, and if we don’t find it, we’ll drink the sand. Here’s where we come to the problem.

Mr. Stewart, you raised our hopes without a plan for how to fulfill them. Perhaps you didn’t realize it, much less expect it, but for the people who miss a sane America, you became our stand-in for Obama. When we elected him, we thought we were getting Teddy Roosevelt. Instead, we got Stuart Smalley. The surge of hope we felt when you announced that we were all going to take a stand for sanity was the last scraps we had after watching a Dem majority go soft and squishy, un-led by our new President. Yeah, he got things done, but he didn’t lead, he didn’t challenge his critics, and because of his Hamletphilia, he left a power vacuum that the GOP stepped into. We were losing hope, and you reminded us what we loved about our country, our votes, and that election. So expectations were pretty high.

I’m cutting to the chase. What we got was a one and a half hour Daily Show/Colbert mash-up with a 25-minute plea for sanity. I don’t know what others expected, but me, I expected a little more direction…and a lot more seriousness. I dunno, being summoned en masse to the heart of our nation to rally for the sanity and unity of our country demanded a little more than skits, music, and Mythbusters. It demanded direction, not a reinforcement that we all were really hip and creative. I expected something tangible, something intrinsically valuable, with laughs thrown in.

You ARE comedians, after all. I expected comedy. But you don’t drag a quarter-million people from all parts of this nation together unless you can deliver more than a show. This wasn’t just a road version of your everyday comedy. We expected fun, but we expected substance. What we got was a big rally that celebrated us for being at a rally. We congratulated ourselves for being so devoted that we would travel across the country to prove it. That was the extent of it. We accomplished nothing.

What took me this long to want to write this, though, was the little gnawing bit I couldn’t put my finger on. We heard the message just fine, criticizing the media for dividing us, and so on. Yeah. But here’s this: Mr. Stewart, you and Mr. Colbert are part of the problem.

It has nothing to do with the direction of your politics. Your fans know you’ll go after Dems just as much as the GOP. (The GOP just happens to provide you with more material.) It’s the polarizing nature of satire. What you do, the satire you make, hitting the media 4 nights a week and approximately every other hour on Comedy Central, allows the side not being skewered to feel vindicated. It’s meant to create sharp emotions, as satire always has. But you can’t be satirical without being divisive. Satire hits extremes, else it’s not good satire, and seeing your sacred cows gored creates resentment. Unless you’re perceived as fair to all sides, you’re going to fail, and the positions you’ve taken on the show are contrary to conservatives. You make fun of conservative people, roles, stereotypes, politics, and so on. No matter what you say about the media or the left, you are the guy who goes after conservatives. Want to know why?

Because you don’t make fun of liberals in the way conservatives want.

They don’t want to hear the jokes that make liberals laugh at themselves, so they don’t. They want to hear about why liberals are the enemy. I think that goes both ways. I don’t think liberals are necessarily interested in what conservatives think makes them funny. And in this polarized climate, the perception is what counts. You’re liberal because even your self-deprecation is liberal. You’re the enemy.

So right now, you’re contributing to the problem. And by coming on at the time the divisiveness was starting to grow, and by taking on the establishment, you earned yourself their enmity almost immediately. Not all the pious kumbaya-spoofing self-referential ironic humor in the world makes up for helping maintain the divide. You might have had a chance with the rally, you might have gotten something started, but like this Administration, there was almost no substance underneath. It was hollow, it was presumptuous, and really, Mr. Stewart, you set us up for disappointment. We didn’t come together for just a laugh, you and me and a quarter-million people. You know that speech at the end? We needed an hour of that. Or maybe we needed a whole weekend of the whole thing. We came to belong; we needed to be challenged. Instead, we got a benediction and thank-you-for-coming.

Why did we do this? What did we accomplish? So what?