Is it a way to improve the nation's political discourse? A way to tip some votes just before the election? Or just a big outdoor comedy show?
Organizers insist that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" on the National Mall on Saturday isn't about politics. But that hasn't dampened the expectations of thousands of fans and advocacy groups seeking to rekindle some of the voter enthusiasm seen in 2008, particularly among young adults.
For many of them, that civic engagement would translate to a boost for Democrats _ a calculation President Barack Obama bet on this week when he became the first sitting president to appear on Stewart's "The Daily Show" on TV's Comedy Central. Obama said his message was still "Yes, we can" _ "but it's not going to happen overnight."
"This rally is attracting a lot of attention, and it could have an impact because the target demographic of young people who tend to vote Democratic needs more mobilization to vote than do older people," said Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
A Pew poll last month found 41 percent of Stewart's fans identify themselves as Democrats, compared with 38 percent independents and 14 percent Republicans. His audience also tends to be younger than for many other cable programs, a key segment since adults 18-29 are half as likely than those 30 and older to vote.
"Any shift in a Democratic or Republican direction coming from a change in the national mood, from whatever outside force, could tip a lot of races because they seem to be so balanced on a razor's edge at this point," Keeter said.
A preliminary list of entertainers includes musicians Sheryl Crow and The Roots. Actor Sam Waterston and Don Novello, who played Father Guido Sarducci on "Saturday Night Live," are also expected to appear.
The event is described on its website as a place for people who want to see a return to sanity _ those who think "shouting is annoying, counterproductive and terrible for your throat, who feel that the loudest voices shouldn't be the only ones that get heard, and who believe that the only time it's appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler."
Organizing for America, Obama's political operation based at Democratic National Committee headquarters, is setting up a "Phone Bank for Sanity" after the rally to urge people to vote on Tuesday.
Groups planning to enlist supporters at the event include Naral Pro-Choice America and backers of California's Proposition 19 to legalize marijuana.
"The vitriol and hatred toward our president and Democrats, it has become so extreme that it kind of scares me," said Margaret Espaillat, 49, of Orlando, who's hoping the rally will improve the political tone and galvanize Democrats. She plans to attend the rally with her three sons who are in college and her husband, a U.S. Army colonel.
"We've never done anything like this before," she said. "But I think in this environment we need to show some real love of our country ... and to rub shoulders with other nice, normal people, I hope."
Charlie Rudnick, 21, a senior at the University of California at Santa Cruz who considers himself to the left of Obama, said he will attend because he is a fan of "The Daily Show" and supports Stewart's goals of civil political discourse. "Obama has talked about getting past partisanship, but I think he's largely failed," Rudnick said.
Saturday's event mirrors the "Restoring Honor" rally held in August by Glenn Beck, the Fox News commentator popular among conservatives and tea party members. Beck, too, downplayed his event as a political rally; Stewart has described his simply as an alternative format for the fake-news humor seen by millions of viewers each night on "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report."
The rally has 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 says it is sending a caravan of 10,000 people on 200 buses from New York, while Oprah Winfrey expressed her support by surprising a "Daily Show" studio audience of about 200 members with free travel expenses to attend.
Comedy Central's park permit puts the crowd estimate at 60,000. There are plans for satellite rallies in cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver and Honolulu.
On his radio show this week, conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh mocked the Saturday event, saying it will give the tea party and other conservatives a chance to build voter turnout for Tuesday.
"I hope every Democrat in the country goes. I hope every union member abandons your precinct, abandons every bit of work you are doing on the election, and goes to Washington, sits around, gets drunk, smoke some doobies and listens to a bunch of putrid jokes told by a couple of half-baked comedians," he said.
Fatima Goodman, 27, of Stamford, Conn., says she plans to make the 10-hour car trip with a friend to make her political presence known.
"My husband and I, we are underwater with our mortgage and we're struggling just like everyone else. But we're not angry, and we're not hateful. We want to hear dialogues about solutions," she said.