A huge throng stretched along the National Mall on Saturday for a "sanity" rally blending laughs, activism and a call to civility from two improbable maestros of moderation, comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
The crowds were festive, goofy, disillusioned with the state of politics if not the nation, and ready to play nice at a gathering called to counter all the shouting and flying insults of these polarized times. So were the hosts.
Colbert arrived on stage like a rescued Chilean mine worker, in a capsule from a supposed underground bunker, after Stewart made a show of counting the crowd, tens of thousands strong, one by one.
For all the frivolity, there were political undertones, too, pushing back against conservatives ahead of Tuesday's election.
"I hate signs," said one sign. "Have you seen my keys?" said another.
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."
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.
People also carried signs in favor of United Farmworkers and the movement to give the District of Columbia a vote in Congress. Many were college students, but the crowd cut across all age groups. "Seniors for pot" cried a half-dozen older people.
Organizers insisted the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear wasn't about politics. Still, supporters and left-leaning advocacy groups hoped it would rekindle some of the voter enthusiasm for Democrats seen in 2008, particularly among young adults.
Stewart is popular especially with Democrats and independents, a Pew Research Center poll found. Colbert of "The Colbert Report" poses as an ultraconservative, and the stage Saturday 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.
The list of entertainers included musicians Sheryl Crow and The Roots. Actor Sam Waterston and Don Novello, who years ago played Father Guido Sarducci on "Saturday Night Live," were also expected to appear.
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 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.
Saturday's event mirrors the "Restoring Honor" rally held in August by Glenn Beck, the Fox News commentator popular among conservatives and tea party supporters. 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."
Stewart wants attendees to help restore the National Mall, which has a $400 million backlog of deferred maintenance. Colbert asked 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 injured soldiers.