When comedian Jon Stewart announced his Washington, D.C. Rally to Restore Sanity, it sparked much joy among fans of his hit program on Comedy Central, "The Daily Show."

But as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, it has also sparked a fierce debate among the political classes about whether Stewart has comedy or politics in mind.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Jon Stewart has made clear what tomorrow afternoon's rally on the Washington Mall is not.

Mr. JON STEWART (Host, "The Daily Show"): People have said it's a rally to counter Glenn Beck. It's not. What it is, is we saw that and thought, what a beautiful outline. What a beautiful structure to fill with what we want to express in live form, festival form.

FOLKENFLIK: Stewart was speaking there to Terry Gross in New York for a broadcast on WHYY's FRESH AIR.

Now, I'm not entirely sure what all that means as Stewart has largely kept the details of the event under wraps. But others are rushing to fill the void. Many pundits have been critical. Timothy Noah of Slate is among this.

Mr. TIMOTHY NOAH (Senior Writer, Slate): Humor has its place, and politics has its place. But don't try and turn the actual process itself into a put-on. This is a serious business.

FOLKENFLIK: Stewart's longtime collaborator, Stephen Colbert, is staging a March to Restore Fear at the same time. Noah says he's a fan of both shows, but that a rally is not a good forum for comedy. What's more, Noah says...

Mr. NOAH: I have had the growing suspicion that the participants in this rally don't entirely think of it as a comedy show, anyway. I think that they are mistaking this participation in this rally, they are mistaking for some sort of political statement. That confusion troubles me.

FOLKENFLIK: Certainly, liberal groups are latching on to the event. The Huffington Post is sending people there on 200 buses. The Democratic Party is seeking to sign up volunteers for last-minute get-out-the-vote efforts for next Tuesday's elections.

Jeremy Pittman is the deputy field director for the gay advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign.

Mr. JEREMY PITTMAN (Deputy Field Director, Human Rights Campaign): When Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert called this rally on the Mall, you know, it presented a unique opportunity, because the demographic of their audience is one that aligns well with our issues and folks who generally support equality.

FOLKENFLIK: Stewart has insisted throughout, this isn't really about targeting Glenn Beck or about the largely conservative Tea Party passion fueling that earlier rally. Instead, Stewart says he's making fun of the intensity of political rhetoric right now.

Mr. STEWART: You know, the whole idea that we're in a suddenly a battle for -between tyranny and freedom, it's a series of pendulum swings, and the swings have become less drastic over time.

FOLKENFLIK: James Poniewozik is senior writer on popular culture for Time magazine. He rejects the idea that Stewart, even in staging a mock rally, is trivializing politics.

Mr. JAMES PONIEWOZIK (Senior Writer, Time): That's sort of a simple-minded view that I think misses the point of satire, which is that satire is entertainment that comes with a point.

FOLKENFLIK: In fact, he argues that Stewart can have it both ways. And Poniewozik says that's nothing new for either Stewart or Colbert.

Mr. PONIEWOZIK: Stewart, you know, has said for years that when he took over "The Daily Show" from Craig Kilborn, he made the concerted decision that it was going to be humor about something. He was - I think his phrase was: He was going to move the show toward relevance.

FOLKENFLIK: Poniewozik says he thinks it will be like the show on a grander scale. But as he says, no one knows.

Stewart hinted to Terry Gross about one fat target.

Mr. STEWART: The closer you spend time with the political and the media process, the less political you become and the more viscerally upset you become at corruption.

FOLKENFLIK: And he added...

Mr. STEWART: I'm less upset about politicians than the media.

FOLKENFLIK: Politicians, Stewart says, are just doing what they've always done. But four nights a week on Comedy Central, Stewart and Colbert eviscerate the media for failing to call foul when they do. Why would the two comedians do any different on the Mall?

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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