A high-spirited crowd numbering, by some estimates, more than 200,000 swamped the National Mall on Saturday, overwhelming the city's public transportation system as people flocked to what organizers billed as a "comedic call for calm."
Much of the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear," put on by "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart and his Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert, resembled a large-scale variety show, with humorous sketches and surprise musical guests such as Kid Rock, Tony Bennett and Yusuf Islam, the former Cat Stevens.
But the three-hour event ended on a serious note when Stewart, in a break from his usual satiric stance, made an impassioned defense of American unity and denounced cable-news depictions of a country riven by animosity.
"The image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false," he said.
Stewart said Americans hear "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. The truth is, we do. We work together to get things done every damn day. The only place we don't is here or on cable TV."
The turnout was estimated by organizers at more than 250,000, but the figure was not confirmed by local or federal authorities, who do not estimate crowd sizes. An aerial estimate by CBS News estimated 215,000 attended, plus or minus 10%. In a similar estimate for a rally by conservative commentator Glenn Beck in August, CBS estimated the crowd at between 78,000 and 96,000. CBS is the sister network of Viacom, which owns Comedy Central, the cable channel that carries the Stewart and Colbert shows.
Still, the large gathering spoke to the following of the two comedians and also suggested that their liberal fans had a deep hunger for inspiration amid a dispiriting political climate
As organizers had promised, the rally sought to avoid any partisan message — none of the speakers even urged people to vote in Tuesday's midterm elections. The most overt political statement was made by Velma Hart, who famously told President Obama at a town hall meeting in September that she was "exhausted" from defending him.
Hart, who received one of the day's four "medals of reasonableness," drew cheers when she said of Obama: "I appreciated his answer, and I appreciate the answer that he's given us every day since. So I'm very excited."
Some in attendance viewed the event as a much-needed political revival for the left, waving signs calling for gay rights and the legalization of marijuana and jabbing at Republicans and the "tea party" movement. "I'm from Kentucky. Sorry about Rand Paul," read one. "Put your tea on ice," declared another.
"Jon Stewart might not have wanted a political rally; this is a political rally," said Vince Beltrami, 48, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, who flew with his wife from Anchorage to attend. "This is reasonable people's opportunity to stand up against the crazy."
His sign read: "Did I have to fly 3776 miles to refudiate Sarah Palin? You betcha!"
Still, the majority seemed motivated less by partisanship than by a desire to speak out against the rancorous political discourse that has dominated the 2010 elections.
"We feel that a very radical minority has controlled the dialogue of our politics and it's about time the more rational population start getting involved," said Brian Sibson, 51, of Jacksonville, Fla.
An eclectic and youthful crowd turned out for the event, jammed together so tightly in some sections of the lawn that they could not move.
Some felt let down that Stewart and Colbert did not deliver a specific call to action.
"I was disappointed, but I think their whole point is that we've politicized almost everything and we can't take ourselves too seriously," said Adam Schreifels, 38, of Minneapolis.
Others said they were heartened just to encounter such a large number of like-minded citizens.
"I think this is an important statement about how a lot of people feel politics have eroded," said Anne Menard, 57, of Harrisburg, Pa.
Fans organized at least 20 satellite rallies in Austin, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boise and other cities. Judy Temple, 71, a retired postal worker from Oxnard, said she decided to attend the L.A. festivities at MacArthur Park to do her part in sending a message.
"I think the rally could have an effect for the future, but it's not likely to change anyone's vote on Tuesday," she said. "Hopefully, it will show that politicians shouldn't appeal to the negative, angry emotions; they should appeal to reason."
The main event on the National Mall included many traditional motifs of political rallies: It began with the national anthem sung by a group of former U.S. service members called 4Troops, and ended with Bennett crooning "America the Beautiful."
The rest, however, was less typical: an amalgam of taped comedy bits; a sing-off between Yusuf Islam doing "Peace Train" and rocker Ozzy Osbourne performing "Crazy Train." The compromise was a version of "Love Train," sung by the O'Jays.
Then came a mock debate between Stewart and Colbert about reason versus fear.
"So what exactly was this?" Stewart asked in his concluding speech. "This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith or people of activism, or look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument, or to suggest that times are not difficult and we have nothing to fear. They are and we do.
"But we live now in hard times, not end times," he continued. "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 conflictionator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder.... If we amplify everything, we hear nothing."
The address marked an unusual bout of sincerity for Stewart, who acknowledged as much: "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."
Times staff writers Yvonne Villarreal in Los Angeles and Michael A. Memoli in Washington contributed to this report.