Fancy Footwork but No Knockout Blows as Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly Spar

By Gail Shister 

Was it a mock debate? A mockable debate? A debatable mock?

Whatever it was, Jon Stewart’s and Bill O’Reilly’s ‘Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium’ Saturday night was a lot more fun to watch than was last week’s presidential debate.

In fact, President Obama and Mitt Romney would do well to consider bringing in Stewart and O’Reilly to prep the candidates for their next showdown, Oct. 16 at Hofstra. They could do a lot worse, and probably have.

Held at George Washington University’s sold-out Lisner Auditorium and streamed live online for $4.95, ‘Rumble’ featured equal parts polemics and poppycock about the country’s most pressing political issues. Lincoln-Douglas, it was not.

Both hosts were outside their natural habitats. O’Reilly is no standup comedian, and Stewart can bray when he overplays the righteous indignation card. Also, the two were used to going mano a mano in short segments on each other’s shows, but this event was 90 minutes. Untelevised minutes, to boot.

Still, as befits their unlikely bromance, the Lilliputian Stewart – he’s 5-foot-7 – and 6-foot-4 O’Reilly were obviously enjoying themselves at the sparring session. It wasn’t as funny as ‘The Daily Show’ or as fiery as ‘The Factor.’ It wasn’t even a rumble. But it had its moments.

Raising and lowering himself on an electric riser behind the podium, Stewart began his opening remarks with: “My friend Bill O’Reilly is completely full of shit.” He riffed about Fox

as Bullshit Mountain, where “problems are amplified and solutions are simplified.” O’Reilly, of course, is mayor there.

For his part, O’Reilly came prepared with loads of statistics as well as visual aids, holding up hand-written placards with phrases like “Bush is gone” and “Why is NPR getting our money?” (Not to quibble, but that one included a photo of Bill Moyers of PBS, an O’Reilly nemesis.)

E.D. Hill, formerly of Fox and CNN, acted as moderator, technically, but did very little moderating during the so-called debate. Like Jim Lehrer last week, she was largely ignored by the participants. At one point, O’Reilly looked over at Hill and dryly observed: “Are you still here?”

Stewart and O’Reilly exchanged barbs over the economy, the national debt, healthcare, foreign policy, the Iraq War, public television, social responsibility, Wall Street bailouts (“We can no longer allow them to privatize their profits and socialize their losses,” Stewart said.)

O’Reilly had a few moments of unintentional humor, making cultural references to Gerry and the Pacemakers and Dr. Kildare. Both were met with puzzled silence from the predominantly-young audience

After the debate, the trio moved to comfortable chairs at the front of the stage for a “lightning round” of questions, mostly from the internet. My personal favorite: “If the U.S. were burning, what famous person would you save?” O’Reilly said Oprah Winfrey. Stewart said his family.

At the end, both men were declared winners and handed championship boxing belts. That was as it should be. Neither had landed a knockout punch, despite some fancy footwork.