One day before Halloween and three days before what will be a pivotal midterm election, the politically engaged, the politically blasé, pot-smoking seniors, families, hipsters and the occasional gaggle of people costumed as Chilean miners gathered on the National Mall Saturday to watch comedians Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert’s satirical Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Keep Fear Alive.
“As I look out here today, I can see we have at least ten million people,” Stewart deadpanned to the crowd with faux Glenn Beck-ian certainty.
According to a crowd estimate commissioned by CBS News via AirPhotosLive.com—the same company used to determine the number of participants at Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally in August—attendance was estimated  at 215,000 people. Beck had 87,000.
As early as 8 am, the Metros were overcrowded to the point that the doors had difficulty closing. Even AT&T couldn’t handle the traffic.
“You want fear, Colbert?” shouted an iPhone waving twenty-something dressed as a giant tea bag. “I can’t text!”
Given that Comedy Central’s permit was for an estimated 60,000 participants (although the Wall Street Journal noted that they ordered enough port-a-potties for 150,000 ), thousands were unable to get into the cordoned-off blocks of the Mall. Adolescents and senior citizens were cheered on as they climbed into trees and onto the tops of port-a-potties to get a glimpse of the elevated video screens.
“At least at concerts you can hear,” said Dianne Cooke. The 24-year-old took Friday off work so that she could travel to DC early. She left the rally early too.
“It had a lot of potential and it was probably a positive sign that there were a lot of people there, but I couldn’t tell you what the message was because I didn’t hear it,” said 23-year-old DC resident and rally frequenter Laiah Idelson. Idelson and her two friends, one of whom flew in from California, were sandwiched between shoving rally-goers and the medic area. “We were joking that you know you’re at a rally for sanity when you’re saying excuse me as you’re pushing someone.”
Those who couldn’t get into the Mall to see the show gathered on the steps of the National Gallery, clogged the streets—it took 20 minutes to travel one block—or formed their own protest around a FOX News van.
Parker Lawrence took a picture of himself flipping off the van before re-joining three other hat-wearing comrades, one with a cigarette cap, the other a femur and the last, a hat in the shape of pin.
“We’re tea baggers, but that’s obvious. I’m a shithead,” the feces-capped Philadelphian said, “and then there’s a butthead, a bonehead and a pinhead.” Parker was content with his inability to view the events onstage, saying that one of the most important parts of the event was seeing the people who came in support of it.
Those who made it into the barricaded blocks of the Mall not only enjoyed the vendors’ kosher hot dogs and black bean burgers, but also reveled in a high-energy and well-choreographed spectacle that was in line with the style of the Daily Show and Colbert Report: a mixture of political commentary and comedic play.
There was mock fighting, an award given to Anderson Cooper’s tight black shirt, a battle of the bands between Ozzie Osborne and the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam), sing-along songs and the reading of the worst poem in the world by the “most reasonable man in America,” Sam Waterston (cue the Law & Order “dun dun”… but really).
Still, serious social and political commentary did shine through the rally’s adsurdism and grand acts of showmanship. For example, Stewart hailed acts of rationality by a diverse group of Americans (ranging from the YouTube sensation  who stole a Koran that was about to be burned to a pro-wrestler who threatened to beat up homophobic middle school bullies) and had one of the Real Housewives of New Jersey apologize for flipping over a table and calling another housewife a “prostitution whore.” The rally was a reaction to overreaction and ended with Stewart giving a fifteen-minute speech calling for national unity and denouncing the media’s tendencies to sensationalize animosity between different political or social groups.
“I think that it was mostly sincere, not that it wasn’t hilarious,” said Texas native AJ Debee.
Although the rally took place days before the election, there were no statements encouraging people to vote. “I think people should do what moves them,” Stewart said in a press conference following the rally. “It’s not my place to make that choice for them.”
President Obama’s Organizing for America did set up a “Phonebank to Restore Sanity” event that began directly following the rally.
Timed to a tee—with musical guests (and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) providing the music for the ending credits—viewers at home didn’t even need to set their TiVos to record for an extra half hour in case of Academy Award-esque lingering. The rally began and ended exactly when it was supposed to because, at the end of the day, it was a TV show.
Both Stewart and Colbert emphasized this point at the press conference. “Our currency isn’t this town’s currency… we don’t have a constituency,” Stewart said. “We do television shows for people who like them, and we just hope that the people like them so that Comedy Central can sell beer to young people. As long as they do that, we’re allowed to do our shows.”
Colbert said that his main goal was for people to be entertained. After observing the hosts of Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters ask the hundreds of thousands of ralliers to jump simultaneously, Colbert noted with a smile that “[The audience was] there to play a game along with us… hopefully they enjoyed our intentions.”
But the call to jump and the resounding implied answer of “how high” perhaps shows that the rally leaders had the thousands of participants wrapped around more than their funny bone.
“I trust Jon Stewart more than I trust anyone else,” said Brian Allen.
“He is the most fair and balanced news we can get on TV apart from BBC,” said Hannah Lamfers as she left the rally.
With thousands kicking up the dirt surrounding the Mall as they exited, many lingered holding signs that reflected the many ways to construe the rally.
Colbert-esque conservatism: “Take a bath hippies!”
Reflection on the media: “Hyperbole is the best thing ever.”
And commentary on many Americans’ current relationship with the political establishment: “It’s a sad day when our politicians are comical and I have to take our comedians politically.”