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Top 20 US progressives: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert

Satirists, organisers of the Rally to Restore Sanity.

At 1pm on a cold Saturday afternoon, Jon Stewart stepped on stage on the Mall in Washington, DC and looked out at the crowd. More than 200,000 people looked back. The date was 30 October 2010 and it marked the moment when the host of The Daily Show - a late-night satirical programme on a relatively small cable channel - moved from mocking US politics to trying to shape its direction. Stewart and his protégé Stephen Colbert had been so incensed by the inflammatory rhetoric of Glenn "Obama Is Racist" Beck and others at the 90,000-strong Tea Party rally "to restore America" on the same spot two months earlier that they decided to hold their own.

On The Daily Show, Stewart outlined his plan. Instead of signs comparing Obama to the Nazis, or declaring that "Socialism Kills", he wanted niceness to be the order of the day. His suggested sign? "I Disagree With You But I'm Pretty Sure You're Not Hitler". Thousands answered the call, many with their own placards: "I HATE TAXES - But I like Roads, Firemen, some cops, traffic lights, National Parks, the Coast Guard . . . So I pay them anyway!". It wasn't so much the silent majority as the sarcastic minority.

This is Stewart's "base" - middle-class, well-educated Americans, tired of the country's drift to the right and the cheapening of public debate caused by Fox News's agenda-driven coverage and the he-said, she-said banalities of rolling news channels. The Daily Show might be a comedy programme - "the show that leads in to me is puppets making crank phone calls", Stewart once observed - but research by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism found that its viewers were better informed about politics than those of any of its rivals. The opening monologues are often crammed with facts on "dry" subjects such as the minimum wage, the cost of America's foreign wars or taxes paid by US billionaires.

Stewart defends liberal-left causes such as health-care reform and the right to strike without backing them explicitly: his speciality is producing the killer fact, or archive clip, that undermines the right's argument. He once sliced and diced Condoleezza Rice over her claim that no one in the Bush White House gave any thought to what might happen if al-Qaeda attacked the US because the possibility seemed so remote. Cut to a clip from her testimony to the 9/11 commission, where she confessed to receiving a briefing in August 2001 titled "Bin Laden determined to attack inside the United States".

It is in interviews that the comic mask sometimes slips: Stewart told the studio audience to stop clapping for him in a fractious encounter with John Bolton, the former ambassador to the UN, because it was getting in the way of his Paxman-style inquisition.

Since taking over TDS in 1999, Stewart, now 49, has slowly become the snarky voice of young, liberal America. He gets 2.3 million viewers, including 1.3 million aged between 18 and 49 - more than any other late-night talk show. Stephen Colbert, a former TDS correspondent, graduated in 2005 to his own show, The Colbert Report, where he delivers a pitch-perfect spoof of blowhard right-wing pundits such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly (whom Colbert calls "Papa Bear").

His crowning comedic moment came in 2006 at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, a normally cosy, backslapping affair, where he stood next to George W Bush and eviscerated his policies, personality and leadership style. Of Bush's low approval ratings, he said: “We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in 'reality'. And reality has a well-known liberal bias." The audience of Washington insiders didn't laugh much but the rest of America did: the speech was viewed on YouTube 2.7 million times in 48 hours and the audio became a number-one bestseller on iTunes, beating the Red Hot Chili Peppers' new album.#

Since then Colbert has turned his attention to the murky world of campaign finance, specifically political action committees - opaque organisations aptly described as “a gigantic loophole for raising and spending unlimited amounts of money". Everyone from Sarah Palin to Karl Rove has one,
and now so does Colbert: Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. He has also testified (in character) before a congressional committee on immigrant labour.

The challenge that both Colbert and Stewart now face is how to balance their comedy and activist roles: how to chuck bottles from the back without anyone saying, "Yeah, well, what would you do, smartass?"

Three days after the Rally to Restore Sanity, the Democratic Party was routed in the midterm elections, further hobbling Barack Obama's presidency. Tom Junod, writing in Esquire, called the gathering "the biggest celebration of political powerlessness in American history". Stewart was more sanguine. As he told the crowd that crisp October day, "These are hard times, but they're not end times. We work together to
get things done every damn day. The only place we don't is here" - he gestured round Washington - "and on cable TV." The next week, he and Colbert were back on screen, doing the only thing they can to help American politics: lampoon it.

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Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. She is the author of Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights (Jonathan Cape).

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama