Jon Stewart’s said at Saturday’s rally that he didn’t really care how it gets received by pundits and cable news - he’s just happy so many people showed up.
“I know there are boundaries for a comedian pundit talky guy,” he said in his closing remarks, “and I’m sure I’ll find out tomorrow how I violated them.” But really, he said, “I’m really happy you guys are here. Even if we’re not sure why.”
So that was the theme from the Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear on the National Mall: There really is no theme, and critics should stop trying to figure one out. “I understand you guys have — it’s all about who’s winning and who’s losing, but we have TV shows,” Stewart told reporters at a press conference later.
Though Stewart has been criticized for organizing a rally that supposedly does everything from selling out to veering into politician territory, there wasn’t much said about politics during the three-hour rally. Stewart only pulled out his cutting criticism when he was talking about the media.
Or, as Stewart put it, it “doesn’t matter what we say or hear today. All that matters is what’s reported on what we say or do today.”
The rally itself featured a parade of guest stars and musicians, skits and gimmicks that made it feel like the combination of a variety show, music festival, and performance art piece with some comedy and feel-good kumbaya moments thrown in. The Roots kicked things off, Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow, and Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples were also among the performers.
Though no official estimates have yet been made of crowd turnout, the Mythbusters duo who followed The Roots estimated that there were 150,000 people there. And Mike Madden, Managing Editor of the Washington City Paper tweeted that an MTV Networks (Comedy Central’s parent company) flak said it was about 250,000. Stewart himself was more generous in his opening remarks, saying “we have over 10 million people.”
And unfortunately for some, the audio systems weren’t equipped for that kind of turnout, and many toward the back couldn’t hear. At one point a loud chant of “louder” began, but apparently the problem was not sufficiently fixed, and some people ended up leaving.
In his opening, Stewart also added that there was a good “demographic sampling” within the crowd, which is a good thing because “if you have too many white people at a rally, your cause is racist.”
Here’s his full opening speech:
Then Stewart brought out Father Guido Sarducci, a Saturday Night Live character played by Don Novello, who gave the opening benediction. Sarducci asked God to give a sign when he named the religion that is the correct one. He also wondered why Jews and Muslims don’t get along more. “They don’t eat pork, you don’t eat pork — let’s build on that,” he said.
Colbert, meanwhile, contributed his own brand of fear-mongering to the rally. Though the crowd is calm now, he said after emerging from his underground “Fear Bunker,” “soon they’ll be a mindless panicked mob once I release the bees.”
Here’s Colbert’s entrance:
Colbert also brought out actor Sam Waterston to read a poem written by Colbert about all of the bad things that can happen to you: “Did you hear that? No? You’re probably going deaf./ It’s your kids back home cooking up some crystal meth.”
[TPM SLIDESHOW: Sanity Restored: Photos From The Stewart/Colbert Rally]
But things weren’t all tranquil — one skit in the rally featured a sing-off between Yusef Islam (a.k.a. Cat Stevens), who represented “sanity” and sang “Peace Train,” and Ozzy Osbourne, who represented “fear” and sang “Crazy Train.” Islam’s appearance has caused backlash from at least one right-winger, as Brian Beutler reports, since he “was accused in 1989 of sympathizing with Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie.”
But Islam’s appearance had a purpose: After he and Ozzy left the stage, The O’Jays came on to play “Love Train,” which both Stewart and Colbert agreed was an acceptable train.
Stewart and Colbert also handed out several medals — Stewart’s for “reasonableness” and Colbert’s for fear, with a picture of a “naked man running with scissors.” Colbert’s first fear award went to all of the news organizations who banned their employees from attending the rally, like the New York Times, ABC News, and of course, NPR. But since they weren’t there to accept the award, he instead gave it to a 7-year old girl, who Colbert said had more guts than the media.
Stewart gave one of his medals to Velma Hart, who he said was reasonable when telling President Obama at a town hall that she is “exhausted of defending” him. Another went to Jacob Isom, a skateboarder who foiled a would-be Koran burner by snatching it from him and saying, “dude, you have no Koran.” Colbert countered by snatching his medal and saying, “dude, you have no award.”
But from where I was sitting in the press box, things got a little awkward during the last hour when Stewart and Colbert slammed the media for pretty much everything. Two clip reels showed cable news hosts fear-mongering and resorting to hysterical warnings during their shows. Colbert, obviously, agreed with the fear side of things, especially when it comes to Muslims. But Jon told Stephen that generalizing about Muslims is unfair — and he brought out Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to prove his point that there are non-scary Muslims.
“You may have a point about humans,” Colbert said, “but what about robots?”
So Jon brought out R2D2 as an example of a non-scary robot (though he may have spoken too soon: “R2 ran over my foot,” Jon said).
But, Jon said, though cable news histrionics are “pretty dispiriting,” he has a secret weapon — his remote control. “I can simply turn the television off or change the channel.” Cue Colbert’s reel of cable news hosts reporting on the level of E. Coli bacteria and fecal matter in most remote controls. “Your remote control has poop on it,” Colbert taunted.
In his closing remarks, Jon became more earnest. He said that he wanted to take a moment to thank everyone for coming, even though it’s certain he’ll be criticized for it tomorrow: “I can’t control what people think this was. I can only tell you my intentions. This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do.”
“But we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies,” Stewart continued. “But unfortunately one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country’s 24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but it’s existence makes solving them that much harder.”
‘If we amplify everything, we hear nothing,” he said, adding: “Not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Partiers or real bigots and Juan Williams and Rick Sanchez is an insult, not only to those people but to the racists themselves who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate.”
“We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is,” Stewart said, and “how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done. But 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 full text of his closing remarks can be found here.
The show closed with Tony Bennett singing “America, The Beautiful,” and then all of the guests coming out to back up Mavis Staples on “I’ll Take You There.”
[TPM SLIDESHOW: Reader Photos From The Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear ]
At a press conference after the rally, Stewart similarly didn’t pull any punches with the press. “Our currency is not this town’s currency, we’re not running for anything,” he said.
“The boundaries we set for ourselves are based on the boundaries of human decency,” Stewart said later, not “by some preordained category of people who are allowed to speak seriously.”
Colbert said he was pleased with the result: “This was a really nice validation of what we were thinking.”