Deep down I knew, when I turned off Romney-Obama Round One after the first 15 minutes, that I would pay dearly for this dereliction of civic duty. Sure, Obama was taking it on the chin, the carnage was unbearable, they should’ve called the fight virtually from the opening bell. But still, the possibility that the genie of unscripted spontaneity might somehow escape from either vessel and provide a moment of political truth — this, if nothing else, meant you were supposed to keep watching, right? Which brings me to “The Rumble 2012,” last night’s ballyhooed pay-per-view online set-to between Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly in a D.C. auditorium. Had I known that for this sin of omission I’d be forced to forgo the pleasures of a crisp, pregnant Saturday night in high-autumnal New York to stare at my laptop in solitude, watching two basic-cable titans spar under the deceptive rubric of entertainment, I would have stuck with it to the bloody end.
Despite the mock-epic buildup, the Rumble was meant to be taken somewhat seriously, to resemble a real presidential debate. There was the same aspiration to a precisely scheduled format, the same schoolmarm admonition to the audience not to twitter, giggle or howl. There was even a haplessly impuissant moderator, former Fox News anchor E.D. Hill (sporting an oddly placed cleavage mike) flailing in for Jim Lehrer. But hey, there’s going to be a “lightning round” at the end, so stick around, kids!
In his opening statement, O’Reilly doubled down on the 47 percent by magnanimously halving them: Romney “was off by 27 percent”; only one in five Americans mooches for a living, you see. One of whom being Sandra Fluke, that succubus of the pruriently reactionary imagination. O’Reilly then produced the first of what would be many helpful placards for those nonplussed by his argument’s subtlety: “BUY YOUR OWN!” next to a picture of a birth-control-pill dispenser.
To which Stewart rejoined: “My friend Bill O’Reilly is completely full of shit.” Not only that, he was “the mayor of Bullshit Mountain,” an “alternate universe” in which history’s greatest villain is Bill Moyers and Big Bird the biggest moocher of all.
And so we were off. After being steamrolled by Stewart early on as he warmed to his opening remarks, Hill remained more or less mum for the initial hour and only once hazarded the nuclear option of a decorously impatient bell-ring. (“Are you still here?” O’Reilly joked.) Did I say an hour? It felt like three. To give a detailed summary of the arguments presented and contested would require re-viewing the Rumble, thus absorbing potentially lethal doses of ennui. I rather beg the reader’s indulgence as I comb my notes for anything resembling a zinger:
O’Reilly: “We won the war on Christmas.”
Stewart: “We’re an entitlement nation.”
O’Reilly’s model for North African diplomacy: “Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary pirates!”
Stewart: “Fox News is the lupus of news.”
Stewart again, on how Republicans act as if the national debt had been born with Obama: “like Athena out of Zeus’s head.”
And then there was Stewart getting all Rick Lazio and bum-rushing O’Reilly’s podium, only to be shoved back from whence he came. Naturally, the best line of the night was Stewart’s, to O’Reilly: “Right now your audience is calling my audience to try to figure out how to download” the event.
After an hour of this, as deliverance trembled on the horizon, comfy chairs were trundled out and the protagonists eased into another half-hour segment, in which they responded to questions submitted by audience members. Toward the end I did a double take as O’Reilly, perhaps flubbing his lines after having stayed in character so stolidly throughout, seemed to blame holy capitalism itself for fostering a climate of “hate” in some corners of the media. Not that he saw any connections close to home. By now it was all too much for Stewart, who hid his face in his hands.
Strange, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Jon Stewart less funny. Granted, he wasn’t really trying to be funny, so determined was he to carry off the quixotic project of taking O’Reilly’s bullying grunts seriously as opinions. But it does sometimes seem as if he assumes that melting the gold of The Daily Show’s crafted satire into the dross of prosy opinion is enough to maintain his magic and open people’s eyes. It’s not. (The trickster, the jester, needs his masks; cf. Colbert.) Without the jokes what we’re left with are the impeccably correct politics of a bien pensant Upper West Side New York City liberal—not that there’s anything wrong with that! But it’s barely worth $4.95, much less a Saturday night.