Carol Memmott and Lindsay Deutsch, USA TODAY
It may not have been the most important debate of the 2012 presidential election season but it was certainly, so far, the most entertaining. And who needs President Obama and GOP rival Mitt Romney when you can get your politics with laughs from Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly?
In what was billed as O'Reilly vs. Stewart 2012: The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium, the host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show and Fox News' top-rated personality and Factor host faced off Saturday night at a sold-out event from Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University, and streamed online for $4.95 a pop, with half the proceeds going to charity.
The Rumble was moderated by journalist E.D. Hill, who kicked off the night's comic side by introducing O'Reilly as "the gargantuan 6-foot-4" and Stewart as a "hobbit-like 5-foot-7-inches tall." (Stewart was on a motorized platform that rose him up to O'Reilly's eye level - and, at times, well beyond.)
The debaters went toe-to-toe and joke-to-joke on the Middle East, health care, partisanship and government debt.
And the zingers were slung fast and furious:
Stewart on Obama's having to deal with Bush's legacy: "We are merely weeks from being a failed state or, even worse, Greece. To solve it is to kill Big Bird."
O'Reilly: "Bush is gone. Adios, sayonara, aloha. It's boring. He's gone. It may have been Bush's fault for the first year, maybe two, but not 3½."
Stewart, after telling O'Reilly he's the leader of "Bull---- mountain," a recurring Daily Show theme: "When you need something, it's an entitlement," said Stewart, "When they need something it is what it is."
On the Middle East, O'Reilly held up a sign that said "Drones. Yes. Waterboards. No," citing the irony of the country's policy allowing drones to strike and kill civilians but condemning waterboarding as wrong.
Stewart, after O'Reilly holds up another sign that reads "Iran not frightened," claiming Obama's sending the wrong message to Iran about American might: "Did they attack our embassy because Barack Obama is weak?"
O'Reilly, blaming government intervention on business' lack of confidence in the economy: "You've got to let the free market run away a little bit. You gotta unleash the machine."
Stewart: "Because what could go wrong?"
On media bias, Stewart: "I don't think ABC or NBC or CBS are activist organizations" then called Fox News "the lupus of news" that's gone "overboard."
O'Reilly: Fox "is making a billion dollars a year, so something's going right."
Stewart: "Yes, you can't make money selling crap in America."
On the American they most admire: Stewart: Robert Kennedy; O'Reilly: Abraham Lincoln.
On whom each would save if America were burning: O'Reilly: "Oprah," citing her wealth; Stewart: "My family ... Oprah's a great answer too."
Both brought their "A" game to the event, although the overwhelming number of people attempting to watch the live stream often slowed things to the point of freezing. The producers tweeted an apology, saying, "Due 2 overwhelming demand, our servers have been overloaded."
O'Reilly said after the event that "at the last minute hundreds of thousands" of viewers logged on, crashing the system. "We're going to get beyond the Internet chaos and it's not going to hurt anybody. $4.95? We'll send it to you."
The party atmosphere started early in the evening, as fans lucky enough to get tickets to see the event were both serious and seriously ready to have some fun at the air-conditioned auditorium.
"I'm rooting for O'Reilly. As you see I'm wearing red. Red for Republican, red for Romney, red for O'Reilly," says Scott Laemmle, 37, of Reston, Va., who was wearing an American flag shirt and red hat. His girlfriend, Rebecca Estrada, 37, also from Reston, was wearing a red dress: "It'll be more entertaining than the presidential debates. At least both sides are going to show up tonight."
Aaron House, 30, of Alexandria, Va., said, "I was surprised it sold out so quickly." He bought tickets about an hour after they went on sale because the "website kept glitching out." He was rooting for "Jon Stewart, definitely, but it should be really fun to watch them duke it out. They're both great entertainers. I'll turn on O'Reilly Factor if Stewart goes on."
Eileen Emerson, 18, of Camden, Tenn., a freshman at GWU, was the first one in line at 5:45 p.m. and had a second-row-center seat. "My dad actually got the ticket from Bill O'Reilly's website, which is pretty ironic because I'm here for Jon Stewart."
Adriana Hernandez, 23, of San Antonio, wearing pink, had a front-row center ticket she got from "refreshing the website for two hours at work." Her pink sweater? "It looks like red! I'm kind of regretting it," she said.
She was there for for Stewart: "I'm from Texas, this is the closest I will ever be to Jon Stewart. I love him! I'm excited because unlike the presidential debates there really are no rules. Maybe there will be a bit more truth telling."
And, at evening's end, unlike the actual debates, the official verdict was: both won. Each got a "championship belt" from moderator Hill. And as for what they learned from the evening, O'Reilly said, "Now I know I'm right."
And post-rumble, members of the audience were satisfied.
"It was a good conversation, and I found myself agreeing with the side I would not be voting for on some points. That's the mark of a good debate," said Nancy McNomee, 55, of Norwich, Conn.
"I think Jon won. He pulled the attention more," said Evan Nielson, 18, a GWU student from Michigan, whose favorite part was "Jon Stewart doing his victory dance at the end. He dominated on humor, but both made very compelling points."
"If the presidential nominees were to learn something from this rumble, it would be to be more open about their policies and opinions, while still having a sense of humor," Amy D'Arella, 23, of Baltimore.
At a news conference after the debate, O'Reilly joked: "Everybody knows that Stewart's opinions are very shallow and not thought out. ... I thought he was very witty with the excrement mountain thing."
Stewart's response: "Yeah, I completely switched over and I think I'm taking Hannity's spot."
"The main thing" said Stewart, "is it's an ongoing conversation and I don't think you can look at these things in this idea of it's a match and there's a winner and the winner takes all. it's an ongoing conversation. ... If you can strip it away and get to the core of what someone's honestly thinking and believing, that's got a value to it on its own."
"Plus," O'Reilly added, "if it's entertaining at the same time, you get people locked in and actually thinking about what was said and have a few laughs. ... The display tonight is why America is America. Robust, creative, no holds barred. You call it big, shtick, whatever you want, but you wouldn't see this in many other countries, that's for sure."
On who won their debate?
Stewart: "America. America won tonight."