NEW YORK (AP) — Jon Stewart was right. As promised, his rally was fun.
Then, at the end, he took a few moments for "some sincerity." For some viewers, those clearly heartfelt remarks on the innate goodness of Americans may have upstaged everything that went before.
Fun was about as specific as Stewart had gotten in the weeks leading up to the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, which he hosted and produced with fellow Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert.
Exactly what the rally would be, and what big names might show up for it, had been a guessing game for fans of "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," as well as the media, for weeks beforehand — at least until Wednesday, when a few names leaked.
On Saturday, viewers of Comedy Central's live telecast — and online streaming — of the three-hour shindig saw a dandy music-and-comedy concert with an inarguable social message. It was staged on Washington's National Mall, with the U.S. Capitol as the glorious backdrop.
The overarching theme was to redeclare Americans' ability to get along and work together, regardless of their ideological differences. And to chastise the media and politicians for promoting polarization.
To put this message across comedically, the rally harnessed the familiar on-air personalities of Stewart, who, as anchor of the "Daily Show" satirical newscast, radiates bemused reasonableness, and Colbert, who inhabits a bloviating right-wing pundit on "The Colbert Report."
Their make-believe clashing in comic bits during the rally was exemplified when Colbert defended the value of unreasonable fear, as in the Garden of Eden.
"If Eve had just had a healthy phobia of snakes, she would not have eaten that apple and cursed us all with original sin," he blustered. "Then I'd be able to walk around naked everywhere."
"You're just creating bogeymen," Stewart protested.
"Bogeymen?" Colbert erupted in alarm. "Where?"
Later, Stewart introduced Yosef (once known as pop star Cat Stevens), who sang his gentle 1970s anti-war anthem, "Peace Train," until Colbert brought out Ozzy Osbourne, who ripped into his classic hit with lyrics including, "I'm going off the rails on a crazy train."
These dueling songs led to a standoff, which was settled when the O'Jays arrived to perform "Love Train."
Other musical guests included the Roots, John Legend, Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, Jeff Tweedy, Mavis Staples and Tony Bennett, who sang "America the Beautiful."
But the proceedings never strayed too far from funny business, however pointed.
Addressing a crowd in the tens of thousands, Stewart reminded them: "It doesn't matter what we say or do here today. It matters what is reported about what we said or did here today."
Demonstrating how the media could slant a given event in wildly different ways, he let two of his "Daily Show" correspondents take a whack.
Wyatt Cenac described the throng as "freedom-loving patriotic Americans brought together by the common optimism of a perfect future," while Jason Jones in his mock report said they "seem like a disorganized mass of activists here to push their own pet cause or grievance."
An overlong climactic set piece found Stewart insisting that Americans can come together and solve problems, with Colbert arguing, "The American people can't work together on anything! They cannot stand each other!"
His dismaying evidence: video collages of politicians and cable-news analysts at their most overwrought and vitriolic.
Colbert even had a comeback when Stewart proposed wielding a TV remote control to shut off such programming: A montage of fearmongering reports said remote controls are a magnet for bacteria.
By then, the afternoon was long, but Stewart took time for some closing remarks and, playing it serious, attempted to explain the rally's purpose — in his mind, at least. To some onlookers, what he said in those dozen minutes may have been superfluous, even self-indulgent. For others, he reached a level of eloquence that made the rest of the day just a prelude.
Americans, he said, do "impossible things every day that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make."
But these are compromises the current crop of politicians are unwilling to make and the media are unwilling to recognize.
"The image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us through a fun house mirror," he said.
Americans work together to get things done every day, he said.
"The only place we don't is here," he said, pointing behind him at the Capitol building, "or on cable TV."
As a stirring pep talk and reality check, Stewart's remarks were the sanest moments on TV in memory — and the surprise many viewers were seeking from the rally.
Comedy Central is owned by Viacom.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org
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