When Porta-Potties are the biggest news to date coming out of this weekend’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” questions need to be raised.
There’s not much we know about the event taking place Saturday, produced and co-hosted by Comedy Central personalities Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
We have the location and time. We’ve watched as Oprah Winfrey and Arianna Huffington committed to footing the bill for some fans to travel to DC. Tchotchkes are now for sale. We saw “The Daily Show” episode where the two gatherings were combined into one, a move only the most naïve didn’t expect.
And Stewart finally more or less addressed issues Number 1 and Number 2, so to speak, which are critically important to those considering spending most of a chilly day outside. If you aren’t aware of the backstory on the portable toilet drama that went down between the Rally and the Marines, it’s worth Googling to see just how provincial, humorless and downright pissy (in all definitions of that word) a government organization can be.
Let me say upfront that I’m a huge Stewart and Colbert fan, not just for their shows and talent but also how they’ve brilliantly marketed themselves without letting on that the giant corporate hand of Viacom was behind it all. And as a longtime entertainment industry PR exec who’s always ready to grab my event production binder and headset, I love the entire concept of the Rally as a grand old-fashioned publicity stunt.
But it’s what we don’t know as yet about the Rally -- only days in advance -- that could impact whether it’s ultimately judged a PR success or not.
It’s assumed that details about format, schedule, focus, guests and audience opportunities will finally come out in the brief remaining lead-up time this week. These mysteries could be, as Stewart once joked, simply because everyone’s scrambling to produce it.
On the other hand, it’s more likely a PR strategy to keep everything purposely secret with the goals of building interest in the event and raising advance viewing for both shows’ cable TV and digital presences.
But for this particular event at this specific point in time, playing it close to the vest can hurt. In fact, to some degree, I think it already has.
First, it conflicts with how people tend to make decisions that commit their personal time.
People aren’t eager to hand over a chunk of their weekend to an event that’s undefined, particularly one that requires some degree of advance planning on their parts. While there’s often spontanaeity in the summer, the public tends tend to be more thoughtful when it comes to making fall and winter choices.
In a clearly unscientific series of polls conducted since the Rally was first announced, I’ve been sporadically asking about two dozen friends, all living variously within a few hours’ drive of D.C., if they were showing up. Nearly everyone was interested at the outset but wanted to know more. Since then, particularly since Comedy Central announced it would be airing the event live (and no doubt replaying it endlessly), only one person still plans to hit the highway.
Stewart and Colbert have also now set themselves up for a potential collision of expectations vs. delivery. Lacking details, the public and the media are assuming anything and everything will happen there. And unless the Pope, the cast of “Glee” in really sexy clothes, James Cameron, Yoko Ono, Jenn Sterger and Vice President Biden show up to link arms and sing “We Are the World,” it’s bound to be a letdown.
But the biggest issue is that by creating an information vacuum around the event, Comedy Central has ceded ownership of it.
Taking advantage of this lack of definition and structure, a number of political and advocacy groups are now planning on showing up to buttonhole the crowd and preach their agendas. Media outlets such as the Washington Post are reporting that organizations including NORML, PETA and local political clubs from around the country are heading to the National Mall on Saturday.
There’s nothing I can find on the Rally’s website explaining parameters for such groups and, according to the Post, those that have tried to connect with the event’s planners claim they’ve gotten no response.
It’s unlikely that Stewart and Colbert are at risk of being overwhelmed on Saturday by these groups since all of them want to be part of -- rather than excommunicated from -- the “Daily Show/Colbert Report” aura. But now the Rally producers and publicists need to offer clarification so they regain control over their event and don’t get relegated to being simply one part of it. And that’s unnecessary additional work for them to be stuck with at this late date.
As for me, it’s an 80 percent chance I’ll attend. I’ll already be in the D.C. area that weekend, I know how to maneuver the Metro and the forecast calls for a rain-free day in the high 50s.
But like a lot of others, I’ll be checking the shows and sites until late Friday to make up my mind. If the Rally continues to play coy and withhold details? Count me out. If they finally unveil a schedule and the guests, I’ll need to decide whether the effort to show up delivers a sufficient return on investment of my time.
Otherwise, I might be happy enough watching it on TV lying on a comfortable couch and having a well-stocked, nicely-smelling Perma-Potty of my very own close by.