Ten years ago, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and thousands of their shows’ most loyal fans took over the National Mall to throw their support behind a common cause. Having skewered American politics for years — Stewart with flustered liberal rage, Colbert with a barely hyperbolic spoof of conservative pundits — the pair was fed up with the polarization of politics that seemed to be taking over their every waking moment. At the time, both comedians insisted at every opportunity that they were “just comedians” rather than the political soothsayers some wanted them to be. Maybe that’s why, just a few weeks away from the first midterm elections after Barack Obama’s presidential victory, Stewart and Colbert combined forces to throw an event of epic proportions with no message beyond “it sure would be nice if everyone was less intense!” Determined to maintain some level of moderation between two increasingly extreme, disparate sides of debate, Stewart and Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear” lay blame for the dire tenor of national debate at the feet of both Democrats and Republicans. In their attempts to stay as neutral as possible, they equivocated so hard that they completely, deliberately ignored the actual issues that were dividing the country with such force. 

I thought about the Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear a lot during “VOMO: Vote or Miss Out,” an aggressively centrist ABC special that aired late Monday night. Hosted by Kevin Hart, on the behalf of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s nonpartisan organization When We All Vote, “VOMO” gathered a grab bag of celebrities and politicians to implore the audience to “Vote or Miss Out.” The lineup was announced at the start in rapid succession, but with a group including 2Chainz, Jay Leno, Dave Chappelle, Amy Schumer, Arnold Schwarzanegger, LeBron James and Ann Romney, it would have been whiplash-inducing no matter what. With giant gatherings rendered impossible by the ongoing pandemic, “VOMO” nonetheless found a way to get enough people in one room to give Hart and several in-person participants a rare live audience, all laughing from behind branded VOMO masks. Some people, like Leno, dropped by in person to join Hart onstage for a minute or less and crack wise about how “you can’t go to bars…you gotta stay six feet away from women, every guy is Harvey Weinstein now” (sure thing, man, thanks for that crystalline insight!). Others, like Chappelle and Chris Rock, FaceTimed in from around the country with stuttering wifi connections that may or may not have been part of the joke. 

Unlike the Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear, “VOMO” tried to throw together a bunch of starpower to motivate people toward the polls. But just like the Rally, “VOMO” tried to be as nonpartisan as possible to completely confusing effect. An hour of standup, video calls and funky graphics later, the only message the special had was that voting is important. The vast majority of the participants had already participated in Democrat events, if not the Democratic National Convention itself, and yet they were unable to get any more specific about why this election might be more pressing than any other. Why people should vote outside the basic duty of it, and what the issues facing the country actually are, never factored into its calculations. As the credits rolled to Migos rapping about voting, I sat there wondering what kind of person would only realize that their vote might matter after getting a joking-not-really lecture from Tim Allen or watching Larry David and Jon Hamm FaceTime about the importance of the U.S. Postal Service. Do they even exist, or would “VOMO” just like to believe as much? 

In 2010, “restoring sanity” apparently meant “restoring some semblance of moderation.” Ten years later, that has proven just about impossible — and yet, here was “VOMO,” tap-dancing like crazy to convince an audience that it doesn’t matter what they think as long as they vote. But how convincing can any pitch be if it has no meat to it? Who’s ever been intellectually swayed by someone shaking them by their shoulders and yelling “YOU SHOULD DO THIS”? Wanting to have it both ways by reaching as many people as it could without taking any kind of moral stance whatsoever, the well-meaning participants of “VOMO” fell into the same trap Stewart and Colbert did a decade ago. In trying to speak to everyone, without alienating anyone, they ended up patting themselves on the back for saying almost nothing at all.