Updated at 4:11 p.m. on October 30.
The sight gags stashed, the Grammy winners backstage, Saturday’s hyper-ironic National Mall rally came down to what most political events do: a guy in a suit with a microphone.
Jon Stewart, swatting repeatedly at the inevitable analysis that he was yet another entertainer who’d devoured his own press clippings and begun attempting to imbue his career with gravy, turned somber and not a little emotional.
“We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate, and how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done. But the truth is, we do. We work together to get things done every damn day,” he told the crowd, which Tony Fox, a Comedy Central executive, pegged at "over 250,000." One sign of its size was Metro traffic. By 3 p.m. 359,988 people used the Metro, TBD.com reported. On a typical Saturday, it's 350,000 for the entire day.
Stewart teed off on what he called the media-driven notion that the country was on the precipice. He said the rally was not meant “to suggest that times are not difficult or that we have nothing to fear. They are, and we do. We live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies. But unfortunately one of our main tools in delineating the two, broke. The country’s 24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems. But its existence makes solving them that much harder.”
During a faux-debate with fellow Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert, the Mall crowd was treated to the object of Stewart’s scorn, a batch of television news clips describing various crises, many of which amounted to very little.
And Colbert played his role of alarm-raising, self-aggrandizing bombastic against Stewart’s more optimistic tone, arguing that fear was an appropriate default mode.
“The American people cannot work together on anything. They cannot stand each other,” Colbert said triumphantly. "That is not true,” Stewart replied, only to appear stymied by a second flurry of clips, largely from FOX News and MSNBC, this one heavy on name-calling between the left and right.
“I admit, that’s pretty dispiriting,” Stewart said.
When Stewart went deep, he went deep. “So,” he said, alone on the stage, in a suit and tie and looking quite like a politician. “Here we are.”
“I know there are boundaries for a comedian pundit talker guy and I’m sure I’ll find out tomorrow how I have violated them,” he said, in a nod at the glut of analysis that has swirled around the rally.
He said, “Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do, often something they do not want to do. But they do it.”
Pointing to the big screens erected throughout the crowd, showing cars converging into a tunnel, Stewart said, “Every one of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief.” One held an atheist obstetrician, he said. Another, a Mormon Jay-Z fan. Stewart plumbed for a metaphor.
“Sure, at some point there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in at the last minute. But that individual is rare and he is scorned, and not hired as an analyst,” he said, jabbing at the news business. “Because we know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light, we have to work together.”
Stewart said, “The truth is, there will always be darkness. And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is not the promised land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey.”
After Tony Bennett sang “America the Beautiful,” prompting “USA!” chants, Stewart brought out other participants to the stage for a closing rendition of “I’ll Take You There,” led by Mavis Staples.
The three-hour event had the feel of both political rally and variety show, featuring Stewart as the ringleader and Colbert, host of “The Colbert Report,” as his pessimistic, paranoid foil. By the time Colbert emerged, Chilean miner-like and in a Evel Knievel jumpsuit and cape from his "fear bunker" purportedly 2,000 feet below Saturday's rally stage, Stewart had already skewered the foregone navel-gazing about what the National Mall crowd meant.
The rally, Stewart said, would be judged on its "color and size." And thus began, in mockery of the heavy attention paid to the demographics of August’s Glenn Beck rally, Stewart asked the audience to count off, one by one, enumerating its race and gender, deploying "Daily Show" correspondents throughout the crowd to interview attendees.
"I think we’re in good shape," Stewart said.
After Colbert entered, in-character and seeking to instill fear with videos of swarming bees and suggesting a "book burning," Father Guido Sarducci delivered the benediction, thanking God for "making it so easy to find parking spaces."
After Sam Waterston read off a litany of “fears,” a brisk rundown of psychoses punctuated by the unmistakable “Law and Order” clang, in verse Colbert had assembled under the title “Mein Poem,” the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, now named Yusuf, took the stage, singing “Peace Train.” Until Colbert, in a bomber jacket and star-spangled pants interrupted, proclaiming, “I am not getting on that train … I am not interested in that train.”
That served as segue to the entrance of Ozzy Osbourne, who came out to “Crazy Train,” while Colbert bopped and Stewart looked miffed.
Stewart put an end to that, demanding that Yusuf retake center stage with his sunnier tune, setting off a back-and-forth that had the two artists playing over each other.
And thus the soundtrack for the decidedly postmodern rally was a cacophonous duel between two decades-old hits about trains, one “Peace” and one “Crazy,” proxy melodies for Colbert’s and Stewart’s opposite faux-worldviews, a battle resolved when the O’Jays delivered the compromise choo-choo: “The Love Train.” After Colbert fretted that such an engine “doesn’t found fearful,” Stewart pacified him by reminding that love can mean “STDs, heartbreak.”
In keeping with the “Take it down a notch for America” theme, Stewart presented a “Medal for Reasonableness” to Armando Galarraga, the Detroit Tigers pitcher who shrugged off a blown call that wrecked his perfect game in June. Galarraga accepted via videotape, hoping for a “big strike zone” from Jim Joyce, the umpire in error.
Stewart responded with a “fear medal” to news organizations that forbade employees from attending the rally for fear they would appear “biased.” NPR came in for a particular spearing from Colbert, who mocked it as a liberal redoubt and presented the medal to a 7-year-old girl.
Stewart and Colbert offered an occasionally on-key duet about the “greatest, strongest country in the world,” Colbert declaring, “If you cut me open, I bleed apple pie” and Stewart responding, “I’ve got just as much right to wear this sweater. I’m a tolerant American and that’s why I’m better.” After a brief celebration of diversity – “from gay men who like football to straight men who like ‘Glee’” – they finished up with a Howard Dean-like geographic tour – “from the shores of Idaho to the shores of Kentucky.”
Stewart presented wrestler Mick Foley with the reason medal, and Colbert feted Facebook inventor Mark Zuckerberg for the social network’s privacy-invading inspirations of paranoia. The final installment of the medal round went to Jacob Isum, the skateboarder who snatched a Quran from a man planning to burn it, celebrated on YouTube for his catchphrase “Dude, you have no Quran.” Isum accepted the medal, then cast it into the crowd.
“I think that might’ve been the most reasonable thing you could possibly do in that situation,” Stewart laughed.
Stewart and Colbert got serious, sort of, in the debate format, standing at two podiums and sparring over reason. Stewart went after promoters of Colbert’s favored emotion, fear. “They’re constantly chumming the waters with fresh threats, always telling us the new thing we’re supposed to be afraid of,” Stewart said.
When Colbert asked why Muslims should not inspire fear – “They attacked us” – Stewart replied that a small number of people “who happened to be of Muslim faith” carried out the attacks. And he brought out Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA great, who doled out high-fives.
“Individuals can be scary, but you can’t generalize about all people,” Stewart said.
When Colbert suggested that robots were scary, Stewart pointed to R2-D2, the Star Wars droid who wheeled onto the stage. “R2 is great … Maybe I need to be more discerning than I thought.”
Colbert then reversed course, introducing Fearzilla, “me in pure fear form,” a gigantic rendition of Colbert in papier-mâché that set up a string of alarmist television clips.
The action on the stage was heavy Saturday in crowd engagement. After The Roots and John Legend warmed up the crowd, the MythBusters began leading the crowd in group exercises -- a Mall-long wave, cheek pops, and "polite" laughter.
While the size of the crowd remained elusive -- estimates ranged from 80,000 from one police officer to Stewart's "10 million" -- its enthusiasm was in full evidence in tongue-in-cheek posters, costumes and a resolute resistance to searches for a larger meaning to the event.
One sign said, “Stand United Against Signs.” Another read, “Paul Revere was an Anchor Baby.” A third: “My wife thinks I’m walking the Appalachian Trail,” a barbed reference to South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s alibi for his extramarital liaisons.
Scoreboard-sized TV screens started replaying episodes of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” around 10 a.m., delighting the crowd that had started massing on the National Mall hours earlier. The crowd roared when Stewart, in a re-airing of his announcement episode, laid out its premise: that the country holds differing views, but that the vast majority is reasonable, while the clamorous minority gets most of the attention and dominates debate.
Stewart and Colbert have scheduled a press conference at the National Press Club for roughly 4 p.m.