Last night, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly had "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart on his show for an interview, Stewart's second visit to the "No-Spin Zone."
You can imagine various good reasons O'Reilly might want to have the Comedy Central star on: a ratings bump in case of fireworks, a chance to give a going-over to a liberal icon. In this case, though, twice seems to make a pattern. When these two guys get together on Fox, a weird little psychodrama plays out.
O'Reilly is smart enough not to berate Stewart. But Papa Bear -- as Stewart's colleague Stephen Colbert calls his faux-role model -- tries almost obsessively to belittle the "Daily Show" host, under a painfully thin guise of attempts at good humor. More oddly, he seems to want Stewart's approval of his own work. Stewart, for his part, supplies all the actual good humor, but remains almost obsequiously game to go along with O'Reilly's weirdness.
Their 2004 encounter started out with O'Reilly asking, "You know what's really frightening? Do you know what's really frightening? You actually have an influence on this presidential election. That is scary. You got stoned slackers watching your dopey show every night, and they can vote. You can't stop them!" A laughing Stewart replied, "Yeah, I just don't know how motivated they would be, these stoned slackers." O'Reilly then claimed -- rather implausibly -- that 87 percent of Stewart's audience is intoxicated.
Last night, O'Reilly opened up by asking what his guest thinks of the president's performance. Stewart expressed some ambivalence, the kind of nuanced perspective not normally welcome on cable news ("You really don't know?" O'Reilly sneered) before settling on a defense of the president's "re-engage[ment] of the regulatory mechanism."
"You know, that's a pretty smart analysis," O'Reilly replied. "You know, a lot of people don’t think you're smart. Did your writers come up with that, or did you?"
From there, the two went on to a fairly arcane dispute over whether or not Fox is unfair in how much coverage it gives to the speeches of various partisan figures, especially the president. O'Reilly got worked up, then played it off as banter with the idiot funnyman. "You're absolutely right," Stewart said, and he let it go.
But the most touchingly odd bit came when O’Reilly turned to a poll that he believes gives his network the validation he's after. Here's the exchange:
O'Reilly: Now, are you shocked, shocked, that a Democratic poll operation shows that Fox News is the most trusted news operation in the country. 49 percent of Americans trust Fox News. Are you stunned?
Stewart: No, no I'm not shocked by that. Are you shocked that an Internet poll said I was the most trusted newscaster?
O'Reilly: Yeah, but that was like, Blinkie did it. This was a big, big, big concern. And someone told me, off the record, that you were one of the 49 percent.
Stewart ended up telling O'Reilly, to his obvious pleasure, that he's the sanest voice at the network -- though that's like being "the thinnest kid at fat camp." The whole thing is really worth watching, because liberal America's favorite comedian does manage to land some punches without getting punched.