’Tis debate season, a time for cross-examination, tie-color analysis and — in the case of Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly — lengthy discussion about how height affects a man’s ability to win arguments. The frenemy media personalities took to podiums Saturday night for the so-called Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium, a live-streamed, 90-minute debate in Washington, D.C. The Daily Show host and the Fox News pundit had promised to engage in a substantive discussion about the state of the union, and they certainly did — in front of an enormous sign that read, “Yum, this banner tastes like freedom.”
In the days before Saturday’s unscripted showdown, reporters pondered their motives for holding the event, which people could pay $4.95 to watch online. Was it a foofaraw masking self-promotion, an elaborate scheme to get O’Reilly’s new book off the shelves or merely a means to secure free publicity for their shows? Was it being promoted as a night of satirical entertainment but in actuality designed to get people engaged in important civic discussion? Or was the whole thing just for funsies? By the end of the evening, it was clear that the answer to all of these was an emphatic yes.
Tickets for the auditorium at George Washington University, priced between $25 and $100, had quickly sold out. In the days leading up to the Rumble, people listed the hot commodities on resale sites like StubHub for up to $1,395. Those assembled booed the warm-up guy when they were told there could be no heckling. But by the time the moderator, CNN anchor E.D. Hill, started the show, the hall was awash in screams of delight.
The central disagreement between O’Reilly and Stewart — who served as essentially tacit surrogates for Mitt Romney and President Obama, respectively — was made clear in their opening arguments. “About 20% of us are slackers, and it’s a growing industry,” O’Reilly said, echoing Romney’s infamous remark that 47% of Americans won’t take responsibility for their lives. Stewart responded: “My friend Bill O’Reilly is completely full of s—.” Stewart said that this deep divide, between exploited makers and parasitic takers, is a dangerous, reductive fantasy seen through the ideological equivalent of an empty toilet-paper roll. He called people who promote it “denizens of Bulls— Mountain” and said O’Reilly was the mountain’s mayor.
While many of the topics were the same as Romney and Obama’s first presidential bout — deficit, health care, government spending — Stewart and O’Reilly’s debate was more enjoyable, partly because the debaters weren’t busy dodging questions. The conversation was organic. They shouted over each other like a bickering couple, both scoring cheers from the audience as they made the points people had wanted to see the candidates make. “Why is it that if you take advantage of a tax break and you’re a corporation, you’re a smart businessman,” Stewart said when they were arguing about food stamps, “but if you take advantage of something that you need to not be hungry, you’re a moocher?” The crowd roared in catharsis.
Their debate was also more enjoyable because it was, of course, hilarious — and goofy. Stewart, standing a “hobbit-like” 5 ft. 7 in., looked strikingly short when he shook hands with O’Reilly, described as “yeti”-esque at 6 ft. 4 in. But that disadvantage was not to last: producers installed a mechanical platform behind Stewart’s podium that he could raise and lower like an elevator. “I can see why Obama did badly in the debate,” he said after going up. “The altitude really is rough up here.” During a sit-down portion, the two were asked about why they were able to come together when Congress couldn’t; Stewart moved to sit in O’Reilly’s giant lap. “And what would you like for Christmas, little boy?” the yeti said, to great guffaws. And when O’Reilly made the requisite Clint Eastwood joke, Stewart got up again and did an empty chair bit. “What?” Stewart said. “Tell them to do what?” It was good television, even if it technically wasn’t on TV.
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If the debate were scored on points well made, Stewart would have taken home the gold. He used a larger range — from dropping F-bombs to waxing poetic about the greatness of the U.S. — to outfox O’Reilly’s classic news-show style. But from a p.r. perspective, O’Reilly was the real winner. His willingness to engage and be ridiculous with Stewart serves as proof that the employees at Fox News aren’t all humorless conservative zombies, as Stewart and other liberals often paint them. He also likely reached many more new audience members. (The Daily Show host, unofficially, had top billing.) Half the proceeds are going to charities, which makes for more winners. And in a press conference after the showdown, Stewart cheekily said there was another: “America.”
During the Q&A with reporters, Stewart resisted attempts to analyze the meaning and influence of the event. As after another D.C. venture, the Rally to Restore Sanity, he became almost humorlessly adamant that what they did was really just for entertainment. But the example they set by talking to someone they disagree with is a valuable one in these überdivided times, even if they joked that nothing was accomplished. When Hill asked them, at the end of the debate, what the two had learned, O’Reilly quipped, “Now I know I’m right.” Stewart returned to the trope that he opened with. “I have learned that Bulls— Mountain is tall,” he said, “and [it’s] deep.”