In one corner, Bill O’Reilly, the ornery talking head behind "The O'Reilly Factor" and best-selling chronicler of presidential killings. In the other, Jon Stewart, the merry prankster host of “The Daily Show.”
The occasion was a debate Saturday night between the celebrity odd couple, live-streamed from our nation's capital. But aside from a few choice jabs courtesy of Stewart and a neat gag that found the Comedy Central staple using a forklift to appear taller than his bloviating sparring partner, most of the jokes, particularly those of O’Reilly, didn’t land.
Instead, the night largely consisted of two articulate, but less than thought-provoking partisans who arrived well marinated in traditional liberal and conservative orthodoxies. If they deviated from their respective parties (yes, O'Reilly says he's an independent -- but who believes him?), I missed it.
O’Reilly attacked PBS funding; Stewart took swipes at the Iraq War. O’Reilly bemoaned the debt; Stewart decried tax cuts. O’Reilly lambasted the welfare state; Stewart pointed out that O’Reilly’s dad was on disability for colitis.
“You’ve been begrudging people all night... but when your family needed [disability] it was ‘oh it was colitis, and it was through the private sector,'” Stewart said.
OK, that last one was a pretty good point. But can we please, please, please declare a moratorium on Sandra Fluke discussions? In this 24-hour news cycle that birth control blowup is so seven months ago. But that didn't stop O'Reilly from trying out a few zingers.
"I left two tickets for Sandra, plus a month’s supply of birth control pills," he said. Oh Bill, behave!
For the most part it was a respectful, albeit intermittently feisty affair. O’Reilly limited himself to one “pinhead” while sparring with Stewart, who was largely convivial. He even managed to say his “friend” Bill was “full of shit" with a smile.
Stewart also amusingly called O’Reilly the “Secretary of Senility” for ludicrously suggesting that Iran’s ruling mullahs would have a shiver go up their collective spines if only President Obama would go on a “double date” with Benjamin Netanyahu. Yes, lack of high-profile Israeli-U.S. lunches is the major reason for that Middle Eastern quagmire.
Also read: Big Bird Thought the Debate Was a Big Snooze
The problem was that the auditorium setting at George Washington University and the traditional debate format created an airlessness that is absent on either performer's shows. It was a satiric torpor that was largely attributable to the fact that the rumble played to neither contender’s strengths while emphasizing their weaknesses.
On “The Daily Show,” Stewart’s job is to skewer the media for not doing their own. He is best when looking at the hyper-partisan coverage that defines talking head program’s like O’Reilly’s and the political theater that both parties are guilty of deploying. But he is at his worst when he tries to be sincere. Case in point was his finger-wagging appearance on CNN’s “Crossfire” a few moons ago during which he accused the rating-challenged show of ruining political discourse.
Over at "The O'Reilly Factor," the pugnacious Fox News host has a talent for boiling down the most complex geo-political issues into common sense stew, theatrically badgering those who deign to see the world in shades of gray. It may be intellectually dishonest, but it makes for good television.
Quips, however, are not his stock in trade. Indeed, for most of the hour-plus match-up, O’Reilly was outmatched on the funny front by Stewart, coming across like a lightly toasted party guest on awkward joke roll.
Moreover, Stewart’s pop culture asides were way more current than his opponent's, which only enhanced O'Reilly's doddering uncle shtick.
Beyond calling out British Invasion band Gerry and the Pacemakers, O’Reilly’s movie references would make him a natural guest-host on Turner Classic Movies.
At one point he accused people of suffering from the “‘Zorba the Greek’ mindset, 'here we are, the government will give it to us.'”
I’m still trying to figure that last one out, because we clearly seem to have seen a different movie. I remember Anthony Quinn hoofing it on a beach; O’Reilly seems to recall something about dancing welfare queens.
The biggest problem was that both O'Reilly and Stewart seemed like two people who read The New York Times over breakfast and maybe TiVo “Meet the Press," yet believe that makes them well-informed enough to give policy prescriptions on the myriad issues facing the country, from failing schools to the Muslim Brotherhood. That said, it’s not like the answers offered up by Barack Obama or Mitt Romney last week were any more substantive or any less pandering. The major saving grace was that at least the Stewart-O'Reilly rumble wasn't moderated by Jim Lehrer.
To be fair, both combatants made a few decent points, whether you agree with their politics or not.
O'Reilly noted that despite having subsidized healthcare, the quality of coverage in places like the United Kingdom and Canada is hardly Cadillac.
"In Britain everyone’s teeth are falling out...no one goes broke, but they don’t get good care,” O’Reilly said.
At the opposite end of the political spectrum, Stewart succinctly and savagely stuck it to a generation of bailout babies who are for the free market except when it turns against them.
"They can no longer privatize their profits and socialize their losses," he noted.
So in the end how did it stack up? I’d say it was slightly funnier than Stewart’s never-ending “Rally to Restore Sanity,” and a smidge more intelligent than O’Reilly’s “Killing Lincoln.”
Sadly, it was nowhere near as good as either of their shows.