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OPINION: Serious comedy fills the discourse void

Amber Day is an assistant professor of English and Cultural Studies at Bryant University in Rhode Island, and author of the forthcoming "Satire and Dissent."

The much-publicized Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear will draw thousands of Americans to Washington on Saturday, to take part in an event billed as "a rally for the people who've been too busy to go to rallies." It's a spectacular example of the renaissance in political satire that's developing in the face of the stunning failings of public political discussion today.

But just because two arch ironists - Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert - have sounded the call, no one should mistake this rally for anything but dead-seriously earnest.

Both Stewart's and Colbert's television programs have attracted not just viewers looking for entertainment, but fans eager to hear their own frustrations publicly aired. And these fans are likely to turn out in legions, as they provide the perfect platform for expressing this frustration en masse.

Both comedians have built a loyal following due to their skilled deconstruction of the flaws of contemporary political debate. Many now look to these shows to poke holes in the media spectacle, as Stewart and Colbert draw attention to the emptiness of political talking points and to the hypocrisy of the pundits who repeat them. Now, they are zeroing in specifically on the overheated rhetoric that cable news is largely responsible for amplifying - rhetoric that is unrepresentative of the vast majority of citizens' views.

Many reports on the rally refer to it as a parody of Glenn Beck's recent Rally to Restore Honor. Though there's certainly an element of this at play, the rally is more than an extended one-liner. Rather, it is tapping into a very real desire to see a different kind of political discussion taking place - one not monopolized by the extremes or reduced to a shouting match between ideological polarities; one not scripted and stage-managed by spin doctors.

Yes, the shows' fans tend to skew liberal and, yes, the tea-party right is the extreme that is getting by far the most amplification these days. But this rally is about more systemic ills.

Each night on their shows, Stewart and Colbert draw attention to the hypocrisy and cynicism that pass for public political discussion. They repeatedly remind us that there should be alternatives. They also gesture toward solutions as they model a form of civil debate with their guests, encouraging them to drop the talking points and instead attempt to work toward real answers to the problems at hand (albeit often interspersed with a crude joke or two).

As Stewart's and Colbert's stars have risen, there's been a lot of discussion about how these comedians have somehow become semi-legitimate political pundits and media critics. But the question isn't really why we are taking comedians so seriously, or whether a rally organized by satirists is a joke. It is: Why are they the primary ones making this critique?


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