WASHINGTON — It was an early sign that this was not an ordinary political rally: The organizers put the crowd estimate at somewhere between 10 million and 6 billion.
Three days before hotly contested national elections, a pair of comedians drew tens of thousands to the National Mall on Saturday with a blend of jokes and music meant to counter some of the anger and fear they see in the country.
Hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert of the Comedy Central network, the event was called the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, with barbs pointed at popular culture, politicians and especially cable TV news — all meant to coax Americans back to a more civil way of disagreeing.
"This is not … to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do," Stewart said in his closing remarks. "But we live now in hard times, not end times. We can have animus and not be enemies."
He lambasted the cable TV news mentality that amplifies outrageous statements, stokes fear and seeks out confrontation, singling out the left-wing media for equating tea partiers with racists and the right-wing media for "the inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims."
"The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems," he said. "Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire. … The press is our immune system. If they overreact to everything, we get sicker."
The message struck a chord with the large throng of people. The National Park Service no longer provides official estimates of crowds, but the National Mall was densely packed with many tens of thousands of people.
"It's the first time a message like this has resonated with me," said Jonathan Dugan, 37, a product engineer who flew from San Francisco to stand on the mall. "We need to get people to talk to each other in a meaningful way."
The rally took on a festive air, with many wearing costumes and carrying irreverent signs. Among the signs: "Give please a chance," "Stir Peanut Butter, Not Anger" and "Does this sign make my butt look big?"
The O'Jays sang their '70s hit Love Train. Actor Sam Waterston read a satiric poem about a man who refused to be scared, who would not share "the panic over Hispanics," and ended up killed by a bear.
Other entertainers included Sheryl Crow, Ozzy Osbourne, Yusuf Islam (a.k.a. Cat Stevens), the Roots, and actor Don Novello portraying Father Guido Sarducci, a character from Saturday Night Live in the 1970s and 1980s.
With its blend of music and jokes, the rally appeared to tap into a growing trend in which entertainment and popular culture blend with politics, particularly for younger Americans.
One out of 10 Americans now gets his or her latest headlines straight from Stewart's Daily Show, according to a summer poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
While there was no official crowd estimate, Stewart mocked the tendency of Washington rallies to claim huge audiences. "We have over 10 million people," he said to laughs. Colbert offered his own guess in a Twitter message that read, "Early estimate of crowd size at Rally: 6 billion."
No one was safe from Stewart's barbs, with video clips of anchors from Fox News as well as CNN, with shouting women on a Real Housewives program, and with Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., yelling, "You lie!" during President Barack Obama's health care speech to Congress in September 2009, and Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, saying that Republicans want the elderly to "die quickly."
If the stage was politically neutral, members of the audience leaned left — with Sarah Palin and Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell top targets.
Mark Foley, 44, an insurance worker from Hartford, Conn., held up a sign with a picture of Palin and the words "keep fear alive."
"Look at Christine O'Donnell," said William Cutter, 50, an advertising executive from Washington. "She has come to represent the joke that is this election. She's abundantly unqualified. Jon Stewart has hit a nerve with the American public. No one speaks to the middle."
The crowd was a mix of all ages. Most claimed that the quest for civility, not partisan advantage, ruled the day.
"I'm really concerned that we're not agreeing on anything," said Jean Mathisen, 63, who runs a seniors fraud-prevention program in Seattle.
Reminded that the country was bitterly divided over Vietnam and civil rights during her youth, she said: "I felt that back then, at least a lot of people wanted to work together."
The younger crowd tended to be somewhat flashier — people came dressed as bananas and one woman's body was covered in strategic places with only police tape.
Katie Blackman, 26, a Washington, D.C., animal welfare worker, held a sign saying, "We may disagree, but I'm pretty sure you're not Hitler."
Judith Sanders, 57, a Fredericksburg, Va., book seller, had a sign demanding "No more unqualified candidates. Show us your grades in U.S. government."
A group of students from the University of Kentucky drove nine hours overnight. They said the rally made them feel connected. "We want to say, 'We exist,' " said Jonathan Erwin, 20, an architecture student. "We have a voice. Jon Stewart is only the enabler."
Information from McClatchy Newspapers and the New York Times was used in this report.