The Rally to Restore Sanity, or What You Will

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Oh, the insanity—of the Rally to Restore Sanity.

Since Jon Stewart announced this meeting of measured minds last month on his fake-ish newscast, The Daily Show, more than 200,000 people have professed via Facebook that they will attend. Arianna Huffington has offered to bus as many New Yorkers as want to go to the three-hour event in Washington, D.C. And the hubbub won Stewart a full-show interview with the one and only President of the United States, just a few days before the Oct. 30 event.

Certainly those promises of attendance that cost all of a button-click to make should be viewed with equal levity, but hundreds of unaffiliated satellite rallies and watch parties have been announced, too. If only a fraction of these people actually get involved, the numbers could far outshine the right-wing Rally to Restore Honor, Glenn Beck’s summer event that Stewart has made the folly of his satire.

So what is it exactly that everyone will be getting involved in? Mild-mannered mingling? Administering a swift kick to the Democratic base’s behind? Certainly Democrats are trying to ride the billowing publicity wave, but Stewart presented his event (coupled with Stephen Colbert’s more ironic “March to Keep Fear Alive”) as a non-partisan meet-up for “the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat.”

Other than being contrary to certain Tea Party-esque actions in spirit, Stewart’s descriptions give little indication of what significance the actual event is supposed to have—unless, of course, that purpose is simple entertainment. And the day’s schedule, obtained through the National Park Service by The Christian Science Monitor, seems to suggest that entertainment is indeed Stewart’s central purpose, as per usual.

On the agenda are Sheryl Crow, funny JumboTron videos and comedians; absent are political figures and serious pundits. Assuming the agenda stands, the rally looks to be a jolly medley of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report—both shows that have sincere moments hidden in bucketfuls of disingenuous sugar.

But while the event itself looks to be sticking to its variety-show guns, its proximity to the midterm elections is awfully conspicuous and hand-wringing abounds. There are worries about whether Stewart is jeopardizing his outsider status; whether the people who show up will be the overzealous, riot-ready type that can usually be counted on to rally; whether the event will be too serious or not serious enough, making a mockery of anyone who takes a sincere political stand.

“I think that he won’t just let this be about entertainment because he takes himself seriously,” says Hilary Rosen, a political strategist with long-time MTV ties and founder of Rock the Vote. “He does understand that his audience expects him to have a wry observation about it, but he’s not a vacuous comedian … and he is not going to waste this opportunity. My guess is that he’s going [to say this to ralliers]: ‘There are two things you can do at this point. You can disengage and say a pox on all their houses or you can say we’re cynical for a reason, because not enough people like us are engaged.’”

Last year, an Ohio State University study titled “The Irony of Satire” demonstrated the people’s power to interpret Colbert’s antics however best fit their desires. Colbert, also the host of a fake-ish newscast, is a liberal in conservative’s clothing, putting on a Bill O’Reilly-inspired character as a ridiculous foil to his left-wing interpretations. But the researchers found that individual-level political ideology significantly predicted their interpretation of Colbert’s political ideology.

As they put it, “There was no significant difference between the groups in thinking Colbert was funny, but conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements.” The irony of satire being that people can interpret your sarcasm level and your true intentions, buried as they are beneath the performance, however they please.

Given all the hullabaloo surrounding the Rally to Restore Sanity, it’s likely that the people attending will find whatever they came looking for, regardless of what gets served up. Those excited to rally the Democrats will surely locate compatriots in similar spirits—and will have the serious interview Stewart already conducted with the President to chew on. The likely largest portion of the crowd who just show up because they love The Daily Show and The Colbert Report will get the three-hour, live episode they came to see. And reporters will have enough jokes, quotes and color to interpret the event in as many ways as it’s been imagined to turn out.

“Results indicate that the ambiguous deadpan satire offered by Stephen Colbert in The Colbert Report is interpreted by audiences in a manner that best fits with their individual political beliefs,” the study concludes. “While common wisdom might suggest that this is simply comedy and people should ‘get the joke,’ this study demonstrates that such assumptions do not seem to hold true when the source is also ambiguous, offering no external cues to guide individuals’ message processing.”

To read the analysis of their intentions provided by TIME’s TV guru, James Ponziewozik, click here.

Meta-update: For updates during the rally tomorrow, follow me @katysteinmetz.

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