November 10, 2010

Keep laughter alive

If I go to heaven when I die, I’ll be surprised, but not because I haven’t earned it. I’ve been a very good boy! I’ll be surprised because I don’t believe there’s a heaven or a hell or even a rest stop with reasonably clean bathrooms. But if there is a heaven, I think it will be sort of like the Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear: perfect weather, great entertainment and 250,000 sweet, courteous, funny, smart, attractive liberals.

When Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert announced their rally, my wife Mary and I immediately made plans to attend. Now that our kids are grown up, we have to turn elsewhere for comedy, so we dashed off to Washington, D.C., to cheer on fake newsmen at a pretend rally.

Like Stewart and Colbert, we didn’t really know what to expect. A “Rally to Restore Sanity” is preposterous: a satire of tea partiers’ futile longing to take back “their” country. After all, this is America: When were we ever sane? But who would show up for such a thing? Angry liberals denouncing the tea party’s facile platitudes? Hippie stoners taking a break from their Adult Swim tweets? Earnest PETA members? Angrily gay marrying welfare mothers? Strident civil rights activists demanding a public option for baby seals?

The answer was none of the above. If there was one adjective to describe the people in attendance, it was “hilarious.” From the time we boarded the Metro (on the eighth try, because the first seven trains were packed) until long after the rally was over, we rarely stopped laughing or smiling.

Although it hadn’t occurred to me ahead of time, it makes sense: Fans of comedy are funny people. Their signs were “Daily Show” worthy. Some were overly polite: “I DISAGREE WITH YOU BUT STILL THINK YOU’RE NICE”; “I’M SORRY IF THIS SIGN IS BLOCKING YOUR VIEW.” Others issued ultimatums: “LET’S AGREE TO DISAGREE”; “GO FORTH AND MASTURBATE.” Others made bold propositions: “I’M NOT GAY BUT JON STEWART IS JON STEWART.” And still others decried our sound-bite society: “PROTEST SIGNS ARE AN INEFFECTUAL MEANS OF COMMUNICATING MY NUANCED VIEWS ON A VARITEY OF ISSUES THAT CANNOT BE REDUCED TO A SIMPLY PITHY SLOGAN.”

The crowd, which appeared to range in age from eight months to 88 years old, was also extremely, touchingly sweet. We saw no shoving, no arguing and no temper tantrums, despite the enormous throng and woefully inadequate speaker system. Clearly, the crowd was several orders of magnitude larger than Comedy Central’s wildest dreams. But no matter: We were all DVRing the onstage antics, which were almost beside the point.

So, the inherent silliness in a rally to “restore sanity” aside, what did the event accomplish? For us, it was more of a religious pilgrimage than a protest rally. We never expected the media to suddenly “take it down a notch” or “reasonableness” to sweep the political landscape. Our elections aren’t decided by those of us who compulsively read newspapers or study the issues. They are decided by people with almost no real information about the candidates but who are easily swayed by the armies of Don Drapers who compose the most compelling narratives. That’s why we get Barack Obama and Al Franken in one election and John Boehner and Rand Paul two years later. So I don’t believe the rally restored sanity, but I do believe in the redemptive power of comedy.

When terrorists flew planes into buildings, Jon Stewart was there to help us cope. When we foolishly and wrongly invaded Iraq, Jon Stewart was there to shine a light on the misadventure. When the Bush administration championed torture, deregulated industry, cut taxes for the rich, destroyed the economy and made America hated around the world, Jon Stewart was there to provide the only true salve: laughter.

Like Twain and Vonnegut before them, Stewart and Colbert have the keen insight and comedic chops to help us laugh through the pain. They can’t deliver sanity, but at least they can bring some funny to the funny farm, and it was an honor to “march” in their “rally.”

While I stood in line to buy Metro passes, Mary made friends with two women who proudly said they were in attendance at Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech” and countless other rallies since. They said this would be their last. I’m proud of America for opening its front porch to all, and I’m delighted those ladies could go out laughing.