This weekend, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart and The Col­bert Report’s Stephen Col­bert will host the Rally to Restore Sanity and the March to Keep Fear Alive, respec­tively, at the National Mall in Wash­ington, D.C. The much-​​publicized events are expected to draw large crowds, but what will they accom­plish? Offering some per­spec­tive is Jef­frey Juris, an assis­tant pro­fessor of anthro­pology in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, whose research focuses on social move­ments, new media and youth culture.

Should these events be taken seri­ously on their own merit, or are they just intended as satire?

They should cer­tainly be taken seri­ously, as should all satire. The point of the ral­lies, and The Daily Show and The Col­bert Report more gen­er­ally, is to use humor to shine a light on the con­tra­dic­tions, foibles and absur­di­ties of our polit­ical cul­ture in order to pro­voke crit­ical reflec­tion, par­tic­u­larly among young people who might not oth­er­wise take an interest in pol­i­tics. In this case, the ral­lies go one step fur­ther and entail par­tic­i­pa­tory action.

Will these kinds of celebrity efforts dilute the seri­ous­ness of the upcoming midterm elec­tion?

Satire blurs the boundary between humor and seri­ous­ness. These par­tic­ular ral­lies are a risk, though, as they seem to rep­re­sent, along with Stephen Colbert’s recent con­gres­sional tes­ti­mony in sup­port of migrant workers, a shift from pure satire to a hybrid form involving more direct kinds of polit­ical engagement.

As a recent column in the Huff­in­gton Post pointed out, the risk is that if the ral­lies, despite their claim to be “non­po­lit­ical,” suc­ceed in mobi­lizing people to the polls —likely to vote Demo­c­ratic — they will have achieved some­thing tan­gible, but may ulti­mately under­mine the longer-​​term project of satire. If they don’t mobi­lize people to the polls, the ral­lies may come off as nar­cis­sistic and self-​​serving.

Does a big rally in gen­eral merely excite the atten­dees, or does it have effects that reach beyond the rally location?

Big ral­lies cer­tainly have the poten­tial to excite and ener­gize atten­dees. But they can have wider effects in at least two ways. First, if the ral­lies suc­ceed in gen­er­ating sig­nif­i­cant media cov­erage, which I sus­pect they will, given the nov­elty of the event and the inevitable com­par­isons with the rally orga­nized by Glenn Beck, they can influ­ence people far beyond the site and time of the rally itself. Second, if people are moved to take action, such as voting or engaging in polit­ical dis­cus­sion, the ral­lies could poten­tially have a more direct, though likely modest, polit­ical impact. If they suc­ceed in starting a con­ver­sa­tion about the increasing absur­dity of our polit­ical cul­ture (which the ral­lies them­selves will dra­ma­tize) they could also have a broader long-​​term impact.

Why is there always such sen­si­tivity, and debate, around deter­mining the number of atten­dees at a rally like this?

Rightly or wrongly, ral­lies and protests are often seen as embodying or rep­re­senting a larger move­ment, interest group or cur­rent of public opinion. The number of par­tic­i­pants in a rally is thus taken as an indi­cator of the size and strength of a broader public. Part of the media “war of inter­pre­ta­tion” after such events is thus an attempt to shape the per­cep­tion of the number of par­tic­i­pants. This dynamic should be par­tic­u­larly intriguing after the Stewart/​Colbert ral­lies, given the inevitable com­par­ison with the Glenn Beck rally.

Inter­est­ingly, the One Nation rally on October 2 to demand jobs and pro­gres­sive social and labor poli­cies drew a few hun­dred thou­sand people but was rel­a­tively ignored. In part this is because stan­dard polit­ical ral­lies are com­mon­place and thus not con­sid­ered par­tic­u­larly news­worthy, while celebrity events such as the Glenn Beck rally are still novel and thus tend to elicit more media atten­tion. It will be inter­esting to see how this plays out with the upcoming Jon Stewart/​Stephen Col­bert rallies.