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."