Comedy saves America: the Stewart and Colbert rallies

For many years, a wonderful seminary colleague of mine taught a class called “Humor as Healing and Grace.” Humor is … Continued

For many years, a wonderful seminary colleague of mine taught a class called “Humor as Healing and Grace.” Humor is a theological subject because it can be a way of healing divisions and cultivating the grace of self-awareness. This theology is now best represented in America by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. These Emmy award-winning comedians on the Comedy Central channel have each announced rallies on the National Mall on October 30. Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” is a parody of Glenn Beck’s August “Restoring Honor” rally. Stephen Colbert’s “March to Keep Fear Alive” is a send up of conservative fear-mongering. These rallies will do more to heal the divisions between among Americans these days than perhaps any more obviously “religious” events could possibly do.

The United States of America isn’t united any more; it’s being torn apart by media-driven extremism; the two extremes in American politics and religion today paint each other not only as wrong, but as evil and in the grip of demonic forces. The future of our democratic experiment is literally at risk in this increasing extremism. Democracy is the art of compromise; it requires that Americans who hold different views be able to develop enough empathy for each other so that bi-partisanship can actually occur, and the country move forward. If we cannot cut each other any slack at all, democracy cannot function. The Stewart rally advertising says, “We’re looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles.” In other words, ‘tone it down’ so we can hear ourselves think.

Comedy is a way to see the contradictions and foibles of the human condition and make it bearable. Comedy isn’t trivial. Comedy comes from the contradictions, even the pain of human existence. Comedy is, in fact born in pain and tragedy. It is never recorded that Jesus laughed, though the Gospels do say that he cried. Chris Rock, the brilliant comedian, commented in an interview in the Chicago Tribune in October of 2009 about how he gets his comedy, like so many comedians do, from observing life and feeling its pain. “I hit my rough patches,” he says. “Friend of mine, Rich Jeni, shot himself in the head…If somebody asks me, ‘Was he depressed?” He was a comedian!” He goes on, “A comedian is like half a psychic. Very aware. It is very, very aware to be a comedian. You kind of gotta notice everything…Stuff doesn’t get by you…You just notice too much.” The result of all this knowledge is comedy, and it’s also pain. “It’s so much easier to not know in life…You just end up knowing too much about people.”

Knowing each other, and laughing together about how ridiculous it really is to live in these times, are practical ways we can get out of extremism and into empathy. Being able to laugh together is rooted in the human capacity for self-transcendence. We human beings are not only defined by our capacities for destruction and creativity. We also laugh. We are capable at making fun of ourselves, and of our own puffed up, self-importance, even the kind that is leading to tragic consequences. Making fun of our own human temptation to overreach is a way to promote self-consciousness and self-transcendence. It’s a way to remind ourselves we are not gods, we’re really just human beings and human beings getting tripped up by our own pretensions to grandeur.

This is the underlying theme of Stephen Colbert’s show, and his “March to Keep Fear Alive.” The show, called “The Colbert Report,” was designed to ridicule personality-driven political pundit news, especially those on Fox News such as The O’Reilly Factor. The key comedic theme of the show is that the anchorman (Colbert) is a poorly informed, right wing apologist who is very fond of his own views. Colbert is perhaps best known for his popularizing (and redefining) the term “truthiness,” which the Merriam-Webster dictionary featured as its 2006 Word of the Year. As used by Colbert, the term is meant to lampoon claims of truth without regard to evidence, logic, critical thinking or even facts. By using this re-defined term, Colbert effectively lampooned the appeal to the “gut feeling” of contemporary poltical and social discourse. He particularly applied it to the decision of President Bush to invade Iraq in 2003.

The ad for the “March to Keep Fear Alive” punctures the religious pretensions of a Beck-type rally, inviting you to march with “The Rev. Sir Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, D.F.A….to Restore Truthiness.” The Colbert march lampoons uncritical nationalism and its use to foster fear and keep people from actually thinking about solving America’s problems. “America, the Greatest Country God ever gave Man, was built on three bedrock principles: Freedom. Liberty. And Fear — that someone might take our Freedom and Liberty. But now, there are dark, optimistic forces trying to take away our Fear — forces with salt and pepper hair and way more Emmys than they need. They want to replace our Fear with reason. But never forget — “Reason” is just one letter away from “Treason.” Coincidence? Reasonable people would say it is, but America can’t afford to take that chance.”

So do consider joining these innovative Americans on October 30th on the National Mall and laugh. Couldn’t hurt.

  • akrauss

    Thanks so much for posting this! I taught humor theory for many years, and was always disappointed at the lack of material on theology and comedy.

  • bizzvanwa

    God bless Stewart and Colbert, two of the smartest and funniest people around. I especially love the Keeping Fear Alive idea. Brilliant. When I hear morons like Sharron Angle (GOP senatorial candidate) talk on right-wing shows about the second amendment option–violence with firearms in case her party doesn’t win the elections it wants to–I don’t think that she literally expects her fans to burn cities or capture Dems. What IS scary is the new low that many right-wing pols will stoop to in order to appeal to the knuckle-draggers among us. Gingrich calling Obama hard or impossible to understand. Angle with her references to armed rebellion. Meanwhile, my life hasn’t changed much since Obama took office, and the same is true for everyone I know. Again, many thanks to Steward and Colbert.

  • Robster1

    how about, “liberalism sucks”

  • Delongl

    Apparently Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are as close as liberals get to religion these days.

  • paulco

    When Senate Republicans unanimously began saying NO to every Democratic proposal from the beginning of Obama’s term, I am dismayed that the public and the media did not cry out that democracy cannot work when grown Senators throw childish tantrums. Refusing to play is infantile, and I fear that we are really, in Robert Bly’s words, a nation of adolescents.

  • BTMPost

    I don’t recall who first pointed this out some years ago, but in 1994 when Republicans gained the majority in Congress for the first time in about 40 years, Newt Gingrich advised his newly elected colleagues not to take up residency in Washington lest it corrupt them. That advice is partially to blame for much of the rancor and distrust in Congress that’s made compromise harder even before the current Republican caucus settled on its “just say no” tactic, placing partisanship ahead of patriotism. Prior to then, it was common for members of Congress with opposing political philosophies to become acquainted in the communities in which they lived. A prime example is the friendship that developed between the late extreme liberal Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy and the very conservative former Wyoming Republican Senator Alan Simpson. Members of Congress no longer get to meet at their kids school events or have the opportunity to chat over dinner. Instead they’ve flown off to their home towns.

  • joe_allen_doty

    Stephen Colbert shouldn’t even be promoted by people who claim to be Christian. He claims to be a Christian; but, he has a rather filthy heart. Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.”A Believer (Correct Bible name for Jesus’ followers) in Jesus who has the right relationship with him would never talk like Colbert does even on a TV show.

  • jake555

    I can’t wait for the “dueling rallies.” This the best news I have heard for a long time. A little comedy can do a lot to adjust your perspective. This is the best Stewart/Colbert can do for America. Let’s hope it goes a long way to tone down the vindictiveness and rancor sown by Beck, Palin, and their Teaparty friends.

  • cindikn

    Love it. I’m organizing “Seminarians Supporting Stephen” and “Students Sticking with Stewart” on Facebook.

  • eezmamata

    Remember how outraged the conservatives were when the liberals were picking on them for their rally. And now here they are today, doing the very same thing.Really, what’s the difference between a conservative and a cow?The cow knows he’s a cow.

  • cindikn

    @eezmamata: Bull.The cow knows *SHE* is a cow.

  • kenk3

    As a Stewart and Colbert follower, at least our “religion” isn’t some middle-eastern, bronze-age, bullsh*t….and unlike most Christians, we’re college educated.

  • areyousaying

    The problem with Angle’s reference to armed rebellion and Palin’s cry to “reload” is that some of their stupid lemmings take these literally.

  • johng1

    Yes it does, that idiotic unsubstantiated post by pauldia at September 20, 2010 8:21 AM has me in stitches.

  • Hu10

    When will thinking Americans stop believing the crap these guys and gals spew they are at least just readers of humor wrote by someone else never there words and thoughts so stuff it i saw that wrote somewhere.And as for the white house they are clowns on vacation and hate America.have a cig and contemplate that bama the clown.

  • johng1

    Ha ha ha Hu10 at September 20, 2010 9:21 AM! You are such the redneck racist assswipe. Ha ha ha

  • areyousaying

    Oh how happy and glee filled are the teabaggers when the ridicule, disrespect, smear and lie about the President of the United States and how angry they are when someone satirizes them. A shining example of their hateful, mean spirited “Christian love” to say nothing of their own hypocrisy.

  • oo7

    When people incredulously ask me who could possibly be making up the masses that believe FOX and Beck and their cohorts, I can now just show them HU10’s post as a visual reference: people with, the inability to think for themselves or form coherent philosophies based on reason and reality, with below average reading comprehension skills and even worse spelling. In short, those who sit at home, dutifully sitting through commercials, playing along at home and consistently reminded that they are NOT smarter than a 5th grader.

  • eezmamata

    Does Jon Stewart still award the dooshbag of liberty? I have to live overseas right now, I don’t get to watch anymore.I had to misspell that word, somehow the wapo management worries that too many people will be upset by it. Maybe they should get a group dooshbag of liberty award.

  • bproulx45

    My wife said it the best: This country was lost when dogs started wearing sweaters and kids started wearing leashes. If anyone CAN save this country it’s probably going to be Stewart and Colbert.

  • joebanks

    I’m sorry but I have very grave doubts about this being the panacea of good will you expect. We reached a moment a few years back when the sides polarized, the right wing decided truth was irrelevant and discussion ended.I fear that humor, as a tool, has become ineffective. Religious fervor, which the GOP has been cultivating for 40 years only values total fidelity. They feel the left is evil and only rigid vigilance at any cost is proper. Saying “no” is the only virtue. Since mutual respect and rational discourse are weak and backsliding, and humor requires at least the momentary ability to wear the other guy’s shoes, the right wing will be diligent in it’s gravity.Will Rogers made jokes that both sides found funny because the truth they exposed was inescapable (“I belong to no organized party…I’m a democrat”). Stewart is cut from the same cloth and is, if anything, more respectful and deferential than Rogers, but neocon humorlessness is implacable. Today’s right wing, with it’s win-at-any-cost mentality and eagerness to trash the law of the land when it is inconvenient, finds it acceptable and effective to deny and deride whatever it doesn’t like. Moreover, the Fox media bubble most teabaggers exist in will prevent them from seeing most of what Colbert and Stewart have to offer. Most of them will never have a chance to make up their own minds for themselves because they won’t leave their carefully and deceitfully edited Fox/Rush lives.Your evoking a world where humor can deflate tension is lovely…too bad it doesn’t exist today. Would humor have stopped Nazis or Fascists or Communists? There are none so blind as those who will not see and the tea party, by definition and composition, will NOT acknowledge any variation as valid: it spends most of it’s time denying what is clearly seen by everyone else and the rest of the time creating a fog of fallacy.Stewart and Colbert can do NOTHING to change the minds, or persuade or even calm these loons. At least the rest of us will get a good laugh.

  • jprfrog

    The Tea Party folks would like us to think of themselves as somehow the heirs of the Boston Tea-Partiers…you know, the guys who threw the tea into Boston Harbor so long ago.Actually they put me more in mind of another tea party: the one that Alice attends in Wonderland, with Glenn Beck perfectly cast as the Mad Hatter. I still haven’t figured out who the other characters might be, but I’m sure that Sarah Palin ain’t Alice. Maybe the Queen of Hearts (who isn’t actually at the party, but is always somehow present in the story, much like Sarah is in the media)?And folks like HU10 must have been in Jonathan Swift’s mind when he wrote about the Yahoos.

  • blbower

    Thank you for making this point in such an eloquent fashion. Comedy has long been a mechanism for diffusing fear and paranoia. Stewart, Colbert and their respective staff writers do a masterful job pointing out the lunacy of today’s political environment. Unfortunately, Democrats and Republicans are providing way too much material. Using humor in religious teachings is always a winning strategy, in my experience. My children could always tell tell me the topic of Sunday’s sermon when it started with a funny story. My family was lucky to have priests that infused humor into their weekly sermons and everyday interactions with people.

  • TruthinessLives

    Hu10, Perhaps you might want to finish grade school before you post a comment. Your teacher will be able to help you correct your grammatical and spelling errors. I know English is a complicated language, but you can learn it if you apply yourself.

  • TruthinessLives

    joebanks No, Jon and Stephen can’t change the minds of these people because they don’t actually use their minds. What Jon and Stephen want to do is get the rest of us out to vote. We outnumber the wingnuts. Let’s show them we are still in charge.

  • TruthinessLives

    bproulx45 I resemble your remark. My mother put a leash on me when I decided to climb into a bear enclosure at a zoo. I was 3 yo at the time. I still have my leash. But my dogs don’t wear sweaters.

  • thanksforfish

    The New York Times has a poll out this morning talking about the disaffection of women voters, that they are so turned off by the politics this season that they’re not likely to even vote – and while Stewart and Colbert may have patriotic intent in their rallying, they might well overlook this most significant demographic.

  • samkaplan@hotmail.com

    I’m planning to attend–if it’s a nice day. Some of the signs I am considering making to carry:I’m not angry–is that okay?Anyone else have suggestions?

  • redroomfotog

    Well looky looky, Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dumber…two of the most arrogant left wingnuts on cable TV are going to have a rally in DC.Many, many Liberal Loonies will attend and bring their hate signs too. These Demorat Socialists are so enamored with Barak Hussein Obamamama that they would (and will) follow him into oblivion in 2012.