About 90 minutes after the throng of performers left the stage of today’s Rally to Restore Sanity on the National Mall in Washington D.C., the ringleaders of the event were brought into the National Press Club to answer some questions about what just happened. Jon Stewart did most of the talking, and Stephen Colbert chimed in here and there, completely out of his fearmongering character, which is a sight so rare to see that you can trick yourself into thinking his couldn’t-be-nicer real personality is the put-on.
“I hope people had fun,” Colbert said sweetly when asked what he thought the rally had accomplished. When ABC’s Christiane Amanpour tried to christen them as players and leaders of the civil society, the thought was batted down quickly. “I think everybody’s a player in the civil society,” he said. “I don’t know about the leaders. We led this rally, that’s for sure. What goes on beyond that, I don’t know.”
“Our currency is not this town’s currency,” was Stewart’s response. “We’re not running for anything. We don’t have a constituency. We do television shows for people who like them and we just hope that people continue to like them so Comedy Central can continue to sell beer to young people. We’re on the metric system. I understand you guys have – it’s all about who’s winning and who’s losing and the strategy of this and the players in that. But we have TV shows and we wanted to do a really good show for people who took the time to come out and see us, and I feel like we accomplished it. I’m really happy with the hard work that both of our shows put in and the musicians who took their time to come and see us and the crowd who was so wonderfully supportive of everything that happened.”
When asked how he thinks the media will interpret the events and the message of the rally, Stewart was firm. “I couldn’t care less. Don’t care. Just don’t care. We’re proud of ourselves. We’re proud of the show we did.”
A bit later, he clarified that sentiment. “We’ve been in this business a really long time and you develop a pretty thick skin for criticism or praise, quite frankly. Believe me, that comes with a huge grain of salt as well. I have failed miserably in this business, and I have succeeded at certain times as well.”
Both of the hosts were cagey about any question regarding the ongoing effects or any lasting social impact the rally would have. When asked what was next for them, they just mentioned the live show for the election this Tuesday, and more shows until Thanksgiving, deflecting (or perhaps not registering) the inquiry about whether the crusade for sanity will continue. They even shrugged off the question of whether or not they should’ve urged the crowd to vote. “I think people should do what moves them,” Stewart said. “That’s not my place to make that choice for them. That’s theirs.”
“It’s all about exercising editorial authority and earning that credibility,” Stewart said of how to improve the media he attacks so often on his show, “and not being afraid to exercise that editorial authority and the moral authority that comes with proving yourself a fair person. Objectivity doesn’t mean a lack of passion and taking a stand, but you have to prove your objectivity through your own experience and action. That’s hard to do, but it’s worth it.”
So what are their shows doing to contribute constructively after such harsh criticism of the media? “It’s very hard to get a sense of perspective on that from the outside,” Stewart answered. “We hope that it provides a certain clarity. That’s a hard judgment to make, that’s for others to decide, but in our minds, it does. Again, that’s kind of a difficult one to suggest – ‘we’re helping, not hurting!’ Of course, we feel that way. Everybody thinks they’re sane. I’m sure Hannibal Lecter walks by salad bars and goes ‘carrots and tomatoes?! [crazy noise]‘. It’s hard to know.”
Some of the reporters in the room were a bit frustrated with responses like that, and with being thwarted by Stewart’s opaqueness about being categorized – particularly with deflection of criticism based on the ‘I’m a comedian” defense – but he simply doesn’t feel the need to define himself or the role he plays that way. “The boundaries that we set for ourselves are based on our own sense of human decency,” he explained, “not based on some preordained category of people who are allowed to speak seriously, people who must only speak in jokes or only speak in rhyme. Our shows are just a reflection of our points of view. I’m not exactly sure why there are lanes.”
Not that Stewart shies away at all from that label. “When people say I’m a comedian,” he said, “it’s not ‘I’m just a comedian.’ I’m really proud that I’m a comedian. I think it’s hard. I think it’s hard to distill your most valued thoughts into comedy and let things that you feel strongly about be the subtext for what you create. That’s not a way of dismissing what you’re saying. We stand by the subtext that is everything. I’ll defend what we do on the show, and if it turns out to be something that we’re wrong about, I’ll correct it and say ‘we screwed up.’ But that’s not a dodge. That’s pride.”
Their favorite moments of the Rally?
“Getting Yusuf, Ozzy and the O’Jays,” Stewart replied, “and coordinating the timing of not just the music and the stagecraft, but when you’re trying to get somebody in from Dubai and another group in from Cleveland and to get Ozzy in from wherever it is that Ozzy’s from and get them all together – one of the nicest things about the event, for me, was their joy in performing together. There was a moment when we were in the trailer with The Roots and I had Yusuf to my left and Ozzy to my right, and I could just see on their faces – we all felt like 12-year-olds just playing in this little trailer. It was purely joy. That, to me, was the best and the hardest thing to pull off and put together.”
Colbert found himself elated by Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman conducting experiments on the massive crowd estimated at around 250,000 people. “For me, one of the greatest surprises was the joy of seeing the audience out there – how many people came, and when the Mythbusters got them to all jump at once? Right before I went on stage, I saw the crowd all jump and this wave just cascade down towards the Washington Monument and I nearly levitated on stage with joy at how joyful and, on a certain level, kind of stupid it is to try to create an earthquake, and that the audience so clearly were it-getters. They were there to have fun. They were there to play a game along with us, and then we knew ‘oh, let’s just go out there and try to play our game as hard as we can and hopefully they enjoy our intentions.’”
A little off-topic, but Stewart also gave his impressions of his interview with President Barack Obama last Wednesday. “I thought we had a really good conversation,” he said, before qualifying it. “I don’t think that there’s any interview that I’ve ever done that I didn’t leave going ‘I wish I had done that better.’ For instance, I called him ‘dude,’ but when King Abdullah of Jordan was on, I called him ‘broseph,’ which is something I do. In the moment, I enjoy conversation and our interviews are obviously the most erratic portion of our show because those are the most spontaneous and the least structured, but they can also be the most revelatory. That’s why I like them. At times it’s a high-wire act, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but the joy of it is in the trying. Sometimes you get there, sometimes you don’t.”