“O’Reilly vs. Colbert”—a crossover media stunt that transpired Thursday night on two cable networks and at least as many planes of reality—was an unsatisfying trudge down a hall of mirrors. Last week, the two talk-show hosts announced that comedian Stephen Colbert, who parodies Bill O’Reilly, would make an appearance on The O’Reilly Factor (Fox News), and that O’Reilly, who parodies himself, would deign to appear on The Colbert Report (Comedy Central), and the anticipation had been sweet. Might Colbert assemble something as scathing as his speech at last year’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner? Would O’Reilly, so often the epitome of restraint, lose his cool? Those of us with shoddy knowledge of particle physics and Star Trek excitedly asked for a reminder: What happens when matter meets antimatter?
The thing fizzled. The first problem is that something’s off with O’Reilly of late. There were days not long ago when a fun-loving godless liberal might turn on the “traditionalist” Factor—a “no-spin zone” as the slogan goes—and get good entertainment value. You admired the showmanship, chuckled as the host shredded some college-newspaper editor or sundry other featherweight, and maybe got some bile flowing. But O’Reilly has lost panache. Even by the indulgent standards of TV news—an arena in which Katie Couric is unashamed to say, via blog, “OK, I’m a loser … but when the red light on my BlackBerry is flashing, I get pretty happy”—he devotes disproportionate effort to reinforcing the bunker of his own persona. The day before Colbert’s appearance, for instance, he exulted in a clash with the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus (circulation: 10,500). “They’re on the attack in Vermont!” With raised pitchforks, perhaps? The following segment consisted of O’Reilly’s reminding the faithful that he’d correctly predicted a position taken by the junior senator from New York: “Well, this morning Mrs. Clinton proved me an oracle. …”
On Thursday, O’Reilly showed that he gets the joke of Colbert but didn’t seem keen to play along with it, perhaps because he expected the comedian—or at least his comedic character—to demonstrate something like fealty. O’Reilly referred to The Colbert Report as “a very successful program that owes everything to me.” Later, teasing and yet not, he asked his guest, “Don’t you owe me an enormous amount of money?” and, later yet, ventured that Colbert “owes his whole life” to the Factor. He refused to drop his self-seriousness and submit to the inherent absurdity of the situation. He couldn’t, actually; to do so would offend his constituents. To wit: O’Reilly ran video from the debut of the Report, a bitin which Colbert, establishing his mock-populist thing, woos the audience: “You’re not the elite. You’re not the country-club crowd. …” But O’Reilly cut the clip before the punch line: “I know for a fact that my country club would never let you in.” Meanwhile, Colbert, being the guest, wasn’t in a position to press hard, so what we got was the light amusement of Colbert’s usual shtick—the grandiosity, the wackiness, the seething hatred of bears. The best part of the show was the off-camera laughter of the crew.
When the second course was served, hours later, on Comedy Central, we were left to lap at more of the same bland porridge. Colbert, uncharacteristically, did not make his triumphal trot from the anchor desk to greet O’Reilly, but met the man right at his interview table. The host made quick stabs at humiliating his guest—flashing a photograph that merged O’Reilly’s head with the oiled-up body of a go-go boy, for instance—and the guest, grudging, just grudging, went along with things. Ho-hum. I don’t get it. Just the night before, Colbert had told Jon Stewart that the prospect of having O’Reilly on the Report was making his nipples erect (“Thank God for duct tape”). Maybe a more pointed approach would have wrenched the Colbert character out of the delicate proportions necessary for his ongoing success. Or maybe, simply, you cannot no-spin a no-spinner.