WASHINGTON — Pundit Bill O’Reilly and comedian Jon Stewart will square off Saturday night at Lisner Auditorium in a mock political debate. Billed as “The Rumble 2012” in an evocation of a prize fight, the sold-out show will be available over the Internet through live streaming. When the two men step behind their podiums, the biggest question may not be who will knock out whom, but whether these two combatants will prevent the rhetorical smackdown from becoming more lovefest than tongue-lashing.
On more than one occasion, O’Reilly has spoken surprisingly warmly of his rival, who as the host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” makes regular comic mincemeat out of O’Reilly’s employer, Fox News. “I like Stewart,” O’Reilly has said, with apparent sincerity. “I respect his opinion.”
For his part, Stewart calls O’Reilly “the most reasonable voice on Fox,” even though that voice has been known to rise in apoplectic fury at some of his liberal guests on “The O’Reilly Factor.” (The comedian did qualify that praise, comparing O’Reilly’s achievement to “being the thinnest kid at fat camp.”)
Over the years, the men have made good-natured appearances on each other’s programs. On Sept. 18, Stewart turned up on “The O’Reilly Factor” to explain his reasons for agreeing to the debate, which arguably puts him in enemy territory, given that it will be moderated by former “Fox News Live” host — and former O’Reilly radio co-host — E.D. Hill. As you may remember, Hill infamously referred to a congratulatory greeting between Barack and Michelle Obama after the 2008 primaries as a “terrorist fist jab.”
“I sense there is still good in you,” Stewart told O’Reilly, in an allusion to Luke Skywalker’s decidedly complicated relationship with his father, Darth Vader.
Not that O’Reilly and Stewart share political DNA. But they’re also less polarized than you might think. The Fox News host has gone on record as supporting environmental regulation, gun control, civil unions and gay adoption. He opposes the death penalty.
Strangest of all, perhaps? O’Reilly, a registered independent, professes not to have a knee-jerk hatred of all things Democratic, unlike some of the more inflammatory talking heads whom he has referred to as “assassins.” To the contrary, it is entirely plausible that O’Reilly “loooves” President Obama, as conservative commentator Ann Coulter sarcastically dismissed her sometime ideological ally in a recent interview.
OK, love may be a strong word.
In any event, the Rumble — an hour of debate followed by 30 minutes of audience questions — is being pitched as a conversation fueled less by partisanship than by philosophy. When they met last month, Stewart called the event “an old-fashioned duel of wits.” O’Reilly has described it as a forum to illuminate “vital issues” of the day, including the economy and the national debt; terrorism and American relations in Muslim countries; and gas prices and energy policy.
Hoo boy, that’s comedy gold right there.
Should you worry that the Rumble won’t live up to the hype? Most real political debates are exercises in repetition, evasion and platitudes. But look who’s talking here, and more important, how they talk. Stewart and O’Reilly have never been shy about campaigning – for ratings. Ironically, publicists for the event were loath to confirm even simple details about the debate format, beyond what both men have said publicly. It makes candidates’ reluctance to offer specifics seem like an exercise in oversharing.
One thing is almost certain. As Stewart succinctly — and, with any luck, presciently — put it in the Rumble’s press release: “I believe this will be a very enjoyable night for fans of our programs, political junkies, partisans and people who just enjoy yelling.”
How to Watch
Don’t wait until the last minute. Before airtime — Saturday at 5 p.m. — head over to www.therumble2012.com with your credit card or PayPal info and click on the “Pre-order now” icon; the event costs $4.95. After setting up a password-protected account, you’ll get access to watch the event — or listen to it, if you prefer — live on your computer. (If you have an HDMI cable, Apple TV or other digital media box, you should be able to watch it on your television, too. Make sure your computer has Adobe Flash 11 or higher.) After Saturday, you can replay the program, on demand, up to three times, at your convenience. Later, the MP4 or MP3 file is yours to download and keep, at no additional cost.
One more thing: Because half of the proceeds go to charity, organizers request that you not share or redistribute the show. For more information, visit the FAQ section of the Rumble website.
Tale of the Tape: Bill O’Reilly vs. Jon Stewart
Birth Name: William James O’Reilly, Jr.
Hometown: Levittown, N.Y.
Nickname: Papa Bear, Mr. Grouch
Median Viewer Age: 65 and older
Primetime Emmy Awards: 0
Political Persuasion: Right-leaning Independent
Paid His Dues: On local TV news
Favorite Insult: Pinhead
Strategy: No spin
Signature Move: Finger jab
Verbal Dexterity: Publishes obscure “Word of the Day”
Dubious Honor: Simultaneously topped ‘08 survey of public’s favorite and least favorite journalists
One Degree of Separation: Grew up with Billy Joel
Literary Lincoln Legacy: “Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever”
Over-the-Top Praise: The new pope of TV journalism
Birth Name: Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz
Hometown: Lawrenceville, N.J.
Nickname: Soupy, Stew Beef
Median Viewer Age: 41
Primetime Emmy Awards: 16
Political Persuasion: Left-leaning Democrat
Paid His Dues: In sweaty comedy clubs
Favorite Insult: Impolite word for male member
Strategy: Fake news
Signature Move: Sarcastic eye roll
Verbal Dexterity: Does New York Times crossword in ink
Dubious Honor: Asteroid named after him
One Degree of Separation: Shared beach house with Anthony Weiner
Literary Lincoln Legacy: “Naked Pictures of Famous People”
Over-the-Top Praise: The Mark Twain of the digital age
Self-appraisal: “Little and hairy”