In October of 2010 I attended a mass demonstration on the National Mall, which also happened to be a live taping of The Daily Show. Hosted by Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart—a comedian and the fourth-most trusted media figure in the United States—the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or Fear) drew upwards of 215,000 people.
A profile of Stewart in New York magazine (“America Is a Joke”) had suggested that the demonstration was an oblique parody of Fox News host Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally, which had taken place that August on the anniversary of the March on Washington. On the day of the event, it had obviously taken on an agenda of its own—adjacent to politics, but not exactly political. The rally was not intended to promote a progressive or even left-leaning platform—Al Sharpton had hosted that protest a couple months before. Rather, the Rally to Restore Sanity targeted the overheated climate of politics itself. Backed by the cheers of his studio audience, Stewart had announced the rally with fervor:
It is happening, people! It is happening. A real gathering. We will gather! We will gather on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a Million Moderate March where we take to the streets to send a message to our leaders and our national media that says, “We are here! We’re—only here though until six, because we have a sitter.” A clarion call for rationality!
As I walked among the attendees on that crisp afternoon taking in the costumes, and giggling at the funnier signs, a sense of disorientation, and a vague embarrassment crept over me. What, exactly, had we shown up here to do?
I no longer make a habit of watching satirical news, but I returned to it last May in the days after James Comey was fired. Public radio and newspaper headlines featured the story on endless churn, as if agitating the obvious would convert it into buttermilk and solid grounds for impeachment. Because the story had long been developing, there was ample online access to relevant episodes of The Daily Show, Full Frontal, Last Week Tonight and the pertinent bits of Colbert’s Late Show and Late Night with Seth Meyers. I assembled the short episodes and clips into a web series that extended back to October 2016, when evidence of Russian hacking was bumped out of the news cycle by Comey’s public discussion of the Anthony Weiner emails.
The footage of our heretofore semifunctional democracy soiling its pants was painful to watch—but also oddly painless, because it was very, very funny. Since most episodes are catalogued online, comedy news offers the public an archive of the news cycle: searching by date and topic, I can make my own cheeky refresher on the recent history of a given crisis as new developments ensue, a digest of the historical present to be enjoyed with minimal effort, perhaps as I do the dishes.