A "sanity" rally blending laughs and political activism drew thousands to the U.S. capital on Saturday, with two popular hosts of satirical cable TV news shows offering an appeal for moderation and civility in polarized times.
In the shadow of the Capitol and close to the election, comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert entertained a huge throng rallying on Saturday, poking fun at the nation's diversity and its ill-tempered politics.
The crowds - easily tens of thousands strong - were festive, goofy, disillusioned with the state of politics if not the nation, and ready to play nice at a gathering called as a counterweight to all the shouting and flying insults of these polarized times.
Festive crowds swarmed on to the National Mall hours in advance, stickers and signs reflecting the call for people to take it easy. "Vote sanity," stickers said. Slogans urged "relax."
"We live in hard times, not 'end times,'" Stewart told the crowd.
In addition, musical acts The Roots, John Legend and Sheryl Crow performed as part of the rally that aired on Comedy Central.
Actor Sam Waterston and comedian Don Novello, who years ago played Father Guido Sarducci on the TV comedy show "Saturday Night Live," also appeared.
"Restoring sanity to politics is a theme that is attracting followers of different demographics, for all sorts of reasons," said CBS foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk, who is reporting from the rally, "and what is clear from the crowd is that there has not been this much press attention or public enthusiasm in a few years."
"The feel at the rally was more of a daytime rock concert than a political gathering," Falk reports.
But there were political undertones, too, pushing back against conservatives ahead of Tuesday's election.
One sign read: "Righties, don't stomp on my head," a reference to an incident before a Senate debate in Kentucky when a liberal activist was pulled to the ground and stepped on.
Organizers insisted Stewart and Colbert's "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear," just days before Tuesday's congressional elections, isn't about politics. Still, that hasn't dampened the hopes of supporters and left-leaning advocacy groups seeking to rekindle some of the voter enthusiasm for Democrats seen in 2008, particularly among young adults.
The event sought in part to be a counterpoint to the "Restoring Honor" rally in August by Glenn Beck, the Fox News commentator popular among conservatives and tea party supporters.
Beck's rally, which had strong religious overtones, drew some protests from civil rights supporters.
"Today's gathering heard American troops singing the national anthem, and patriotic comedy from Stewart and Colbert (who wore American flag jackets) taking direct swipes at the 'Rally to Restore Honor' of Glenn Beck," Falk added, "adding a more political stripe to the satire."
The stage Saturday was stacked with entertainers associated with Democratic causes or President Barack 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.
The rally generated extensive buzz on the Internet, with more than 226,000 people on a Facebook page created for the event saying they would attend. The liberal Huffington Post was sending a caravan of 10,000 people on 200 buses from New York, while TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey expressed her support by providing travel expenses to a "Daily Show" studio audience of about 200 members so that they could attend.
Comedy Central's park permit puts the crowd estimate at 60,000. There were plans for satellite rallies in cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver and Honolulu.
Stewart and Colbert encouraged attendees to bring signs with slogans such as "Real patriots can handle a difference in opinion," "It could be worse but let's not make it that way," and "Death to Nobody."
Organizing for America, Obama's political operation based at Democratic National Committee headquarters, was setting up a "Phone Bank for Sanity" after the rally to urge people to vote on Tuesday.
Groups planning to enlist supporters at the event include Naral Pro-Choice America, which supports abortion rights; D.C. Vote, which aims to give the U.S. capital a voting representative in the House of Representatives; and backers of California's Proposition 19 to legalize marijuana.
"The vitriol and hatred toward our president and Democrats, it has become so extreme that it kind of scares me," said Margaret Espaillat, 49, of Orlando, Fla., who's hoping the rally will improve the political tone and galvanize Democrats. She planned to attend with her three sons who are in college and her husband, an Army colonel.
Saturday's event mirrors the "Restoring Honor" rally held in August by Glenn Beck, the Fox News commentator popular among conservatives. Beck, too, played down his event as a political rally; Stewart has described his simply as an alternative format for the mock-news humor seen by millions of Comedy Central viewers each night on "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report."
On his radio show this week, conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh mocked the Saturday event. He says it will give the Tea Party movement and other conservatives a chance to build voter turnout for Tuesday while Democrats go to Washington to "smoke some doobies" and listen to a "couple of half-baked comedians."
The rally is promoting charitable causes. Stewart is asking attendees to help restore the National Mall, which has a $400 million backlog of deferred maintenance. Colbert is asking people to contribute to Donors Choose, which raises money for school supplies; proceeds from sales of rally merchandise also will go to the Yellow Ribbon Fund to help wounded soldiers.