In the shadow of the Capitol and the election, comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert entertained a huge throng Saturday at a "sanity" rally poking fun at the nation's ill-tempered politics, its fear-mongers and doomsayers. The Skanner News Video
"We live now in hard times," Stewart said after all the shtick. "Not end times."
Part comedy show, part pep talk, the rally drew together tens of thousands stretched across an expanse of the National Mall, a festive congregation of the goofy and the politically disenchanted. People carried signs merrily protesting the existence of protest signs. Some dressed like bananas, wizards, Martians and Uncle Sam.
Stewart, a satirist who makes his living skewering the famous, came to play nice. He decried the "extensive effort it takes to hate" and declared "we can have animus and not be enemies."
Screens showed a variety of pundits and politicians from the left and right, engaged in divisive rhetoric. Prominently shown: Glenn Beck, whose conservative Restoring Honor rally in Washington in August was part of the motivation for the Stewart and Colbert event, called the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. It appeared to rival Beck's rally in attendance.
As part of the comedic routine, Stewart and his associates asked some in the audience to identify themselves by category, eliciting answers such as "half-Mexican, half-white," ''American woman single" and "Asian-American from Taiwan."
"It's a perfect demographic sampling of the American people," Stewart cracked to a crowd filled with mostly younger whites. "As you know, if you have too many white people at a rally, your cause is racist. If you have too many people of color, then you must be asking for something — special rights, like eating at restaurants or piggy back rides."
With critical congressional elections looming Tuesday, Stewart and Colbert refrained from taking political sides on stage, even as many in the crowd wore T-shirts that read "Stewart-Colbert 2012."
Stewart sang along as Jeff Tweedy sang that America "is the greatest, strongest country in the world. There is no one more American than we."
Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow also performed, singing if "I can't change the world to make it better, the least I can do is care."
The idea was to provide a counterweight to all the shouting and flying insults of these polarized times. But there were political undertones, too, pushing back against conservatives ahead of Tuesday's election.
Slogans urged people to "relax." But also: "Righties, don't stomp on my head," a reference to a Republican rally in Kentucky at which a liberal activist was pulled to the ground and stepped on. And, "I wouldn't care if the president was Muslim."
Colbert, who poses as an ultraconservative on his show, played the personification of fear at the rally. He arrived on stage in a capsule like a rescued Chilean miner, from a supposed underground bunker. He pretended to distrust all Muslims until one of his heroes, basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is Muslim, came on the stage.
"Maybe I need to be more discerning," Colbert mused. He told Stewart: "Your reasonableness is poisoning my fear."
Shannon Escobar, 31, of Bangor, Pa., came with a group of 400 people on buses chartered in New York. A supporter of President Barack Obama in 2008, she said she's tired of nasty rhetoric from both sides and disenchanted with lack of progress in Washington.
"I want to see real change — not Obama change," she said. "We need a clean slate and start over with people really working together."
A regular viewer of Stewart's "The Daily Show," she said she had a dream that he ran for political office, but got "corrupt and dirty."
"I need him to stay pure," she said, deadpan.
Stewart is popular with Democrats and independents, a Pew Research Center poll found. Colbert of "The Colbert Report" poses as an ultraconservative, and the stage was stacked with entertainers associated with Democratic causes or Obama's 2008 campaign.
Even so, Stewart said the day was about toning down anger and partisan division. "Shouting is annoying, counterproductive and terrible for your throat," he said on his website.
Comedy Central's park permit anticipated a crowd estimated in advance at 60,000.
The Skanner News Video: Jon Stewart's speech