Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly ready to Rumble
When Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly take the stage at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium on Saturday night to engage in a political debate tabbed The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium, their most partisan fans might be craving blood. After all, O’Reilly is Fox News’ looming, scowling conservative he-man, and Stewart is more than paying for his kids’ college education by routinely mocking Fox News’ style and substance four nights a week on The Daily Show. But as anyone who’s watched the adversaries joust on each other’s shows over the years, their relationship is anything but bitter. It’s more Oscar & Felix than Hamilton & Jefferson or Ali & Frazier, though Stewart suggests it’s even deeper than that. “I think it’s more Hepburn and Tracy,” says the comedian. “I think there’s a lot of sexual tension under there. Who’s who? It switches. It depends.”
The two TV giants have taken turns appearing on each other’s programs, bravely venturing into “enemy territory” to promote their respective best-selling books and challenge each others’ worldviews. Their political differences, however, have failed to undermine an undeniable fondness, if not sincere respect for each other. “I like Stewart,” says O’Reilly, whose show has now been the top cable news program for 50 straight quarters. “He’s a smart guy, and he’s always fun to joust with. He always comes up with some interesting things. I challenge him, he challenges me.”
That Stewart has a soft spot for O’Reilly is clear in the way he covers The O’Reilly Factor, as opposed to his contemptuous treatment of ex-Fox News superstar Glenn Beck and the trio that hosts the Fox & Friends morning show. When Stewart pokes O’Reilly, there always seems to be an accompanying wink that says, “No hard feelings, I’m just keepin’ ya honest.” “He reminds me of everyone that I used to bartend for,” says Stewart, whose show just collected its 10th straight Emmy. “You know, down in the basement bar of a liquor store at a place called the Bottom Half, and everybody would have their Ayatollah Assahola shirts, and we’d all just be sitting there drinking beer. It’s the neighborhood, the syntax, the rhythm, it’s all very familiar to me.”
So when O’Reilly decided over the summer that there might be an opportunity to raise some money for charity, there was only one liberal personality who could deliver the goods and go toe-to-toe with him in a debate. He rang Stewart and made his pitch. “By reached out, I mean he literally he called up and said, ‘Stewart. Debate. October. Let’s do this,'” says Stewart, in his low-voiced imitation of O’Reilly’s bark.
“There wasn’t a lot of back and forth,” says O’Reilly. “He and I are pretty much on the same page as far as presentation and how to do things. It was fairly seamless. We had one meeting after that, and just hashed it out.”
E.D. Hill of CNN will moderate the debate, which is being streamed live online for $4.95. (Half of the final proceeds will go to charities.) The first 60 minutes will be a back and forth and the last 30 minutes are reserved for questions from the audience, but even the rules are vague. “She’ll be asking questions and setting it up, and maybe there will be a little bell there, I don’t know,” says O’Reilly. “It’s just going to be entertaining. The less restrictive, the better.”
“I don’t think it’s going to be anything too wonky,” agrees Stewart. “Whenever we get together, it just sort of devolves into a yeti chasing a fly. Honestly, while I appreciate that we’re in a quote unquote debate, my guess is that the standard parameters are somewhat less than full compliance.”
On Thursday, O’Reilly will visit the Daily Show again — to promote the Rumble and his new book, Killing Kennedy — but don’t expect any giant theatrics to hype Saturday’s event. Neither man seems interested in talking trash, and both insist they couldn’t be taking their preparation less seriously. “I’m not going into this with any real competitive fire,” says O’Reilly. “I prepare every night on my show so I’m pretty much up to speed on what the issues and whatever he and his 16 writers throw at me. I don’t rehearse for any of my debates on the Factor — ever. I just live or die by my wits.”
Stewart’s take is similar. “I’m not working on the zingers, if that’s what you mean,” he says. “I don’t have a ton of time and we all have shows to do. Everyone knows we disagree. Everyone knows we kind of get a kick out of each other. And hopefully, it’ll be entertaining.”
Perhaps the rivals’ excessive sandbagging is just part of the gamesmanship, in the same way that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s soldiers downplay their candidate’s chances in the actual presidential debate on Wednesday night. After all, there is a little passive-aggressive element to O’Reilly and Stewart’s relationship that often comes across on screen — especially when the topic of book sales and TV ratings comes up — and both men seem to care what the other thinks, even if they deny it. “I don’t know whether I’ve convinced him,” says O’Reilly, when asked if their exchanges have ever yielded a changed mind. “But I think some of my points have been pretty irrefutable and whether he responds to that intellectually, I don’t know — I don’t really care either.”
So maybe they’ll start swinging Saturday night once the lights are on them and one of them tastes his own blood after getting tagged with a cutting verbal blow. (“Bite his ear off, Bill O!!” “Hang on to his foot Van Gundy style, Stew-Beef!!“) You can hope, but more likely, these two will be shaking hands when all is said and done, and it likely won’t cost you an ounce in entertainment value.
“There’s been a tendency to weaponize disagreement, this sense that those who disagree with you are your enemy and will be destroyed,” says Stewart. “But when you can sort of convince each other that you come by your beliefs honestly, that it’s not a cynical ploy, you walk away from a debate going, ‘Alright, I get it. We’re not that far off.’ You relax a little bit. Because in the same way that sometimes you walk away from Thanksgiving going, ‘Oh my god, that was f–king terrible. Everybody was just yelling at each other,’ a couple of days later, you’re like, ‘It was kind of fun,’ and you have a lot of funny stories to tell about it.”
Sweet. But somewhere Don King weeps.