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Was O’Reilly vs. Stewart Less Funny Than Romney vs. Obama?

Saturday’s “mock political debate” between Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly, called “The Rumble 2012” and broadcast live online, was almost as unfunny as the presidential debate itself. O’Reilly seemed like a giant, doofy bear who had stumbled into a hunting trap. Stewart appeared as a very self-satisfied puppeteer, snickering and shaking his head as O’Reilly thundered on. It was ultimately a stylistic battle as much as an ideological one: the O’Reilly school of cranky apoplexy vs. the Stewart school of eyebrow-cocked condescension. There was soapboxing and there was scoffing, but there were pitifully few jokes.

O’Reilly raved about the country’s dependents who “just aren’t gonna make a living, aren’t gonna really do anything”; Stewart stared out at the audience, letting his mock-incredulous silence speak for itself, as if he were on “The Daily Show” playing a Fox News clip that he found self-evidently dumb. Stewart delivered a deadly earnest defense of the welfare system, then tried to climb on top of the podium to emphasize the superiority of his moral logic. “Some of the president’s policies in the Middle East have been very good,” O’Reilly offered. “What is wrong with this country is not that we face problems we have not faced before,” Stewart announced. “We face a deficiency in our problem-solving mechanism.”

The problem with political satire that insists on so much seriousness is that it doesn’t make for very good satire. Moderator E.D. Hill’s questions included: “Who do you think or what do you think is to blame for where we are economically?” and “Has this president fundamentally changed the relationship between entitlements and the government?” and “How would you rate the president’s policy in the Middle East?” No one asked, alas: Why is Jon Stewart being called upon to rate the president’s Middle East policy? 

The event was framed as a model of healthy cross-party engagement; toward the end, each debater was asked whether he would consider switching jobs with the other one and what he most respected about his opponent. Even as they sparred, they mostly steered clear of both straight antagonism and real interrogation. The main gag was that Stewart’s podium came equipped with a button that elevated his platform to O’Reilly’s height when he thought his argument had reached a new peak of shining good sense. “The Rumble” was supposed to be fun, but its ambitions of being an object lesson mostly killed the comedy. And contributing to the genre confusion, of course, was that O’Reilly is not a comic at all. 

So “The Rumble” felt a bit like a real political debate, minus the actual electoral stakes. And the participants seemed pretty convinced of the nobility of their undertaking. Dismissing of the town hall format of the upcoming Romney-Obama match, O’Reilly said: “I would just rather have [the candidates debate] like Stewart and me—wouldn’t you, right up here? Now that’s how to do it.” The comment called to mind Chris Matthews’s suggestion that Obama watch MSNBC in order to boost his charisma and spice up his debating style, to learn how to debate “with his knives out.” Both highlighted the general conflation of politics and the media circus surrounding it, the idea that our politicians should be looking to our pundits as a model of how to engage with each other and with the public. In “The Rumble,” though,  entertainers weren't lampooning political theater; they were fashioning themselves as political figures. But unlike the real presidential debate, in “The Rumble,” “everybody wins,” the moderator announced. Little surprise that this made for an impressively boring show.