The long-awaited meetings between Bill O'Reilly and Stephen Colbert were not epic, televised confrontations that resulted in verbal worldplay. Nor did their appearances result in someone coming across as a winner and the other as the loser.
That's because, when each guested on the other's program Thursday night, Stephen Colbert stayed in character, and Bill O'Reilly remained out of character. Colbert, as usual, played the part of an irrational, extremely conservative talk show host, while O'Reilly atypically softballed his guest and played along.
Had they both stayed true to who they are on their own shows, but not when they appeared as a guest on the other's program, we might have actually learned something. Instead, the two appearances came across mostly as a lark, a promotional stunt designed to help both hosts and hurt neither.
First up was Colbert on "The O'Reilly Factor," and O'Reilly introduced the interview by noting that "The Colbert Report on Comedy Central is a very successful program that owes everything to me. Each night, host Stephen Colbert tries to convince Americans that he is me."
To be sure, Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" borrows heavily from FOX News' "The O'Reilly Factor," as Colbert's character borrows from O'Reilly. Colbert introduced the interview on his show with a clip package titled "Great Minds Think Alike" that highlighted moments when Colbert has directly ripped off O'Reilly's mannerisms and words.
But just as the NBC version of "The Office" started as a carbon copy of the UK version but grew into its own self-sustaining, independent organism, "The Colbert Report" has become much more than just a "Saturday Night Live" sketch about the "Factor."
By embracing the over-the-top, personality driven cable news format, Colbert ruthlessly mocks that method of delivering news and opinion, and somewhat ironically has developed a following for a show that happens to also be exactly what it makes fun of on a daily basis.
Watching both men interact, the obvious became even more clear: Both are intelligent, exceptional orators who can think rapidly and respond in a microsecond. One uses those skills to deliver his perspective about the day's news, while one uses them to deliver satire of those who filter the day's news through their own perspective.
Referencing the similarities during his show, O'Reilly asked, "Don't you owe me an enormous amount of money?" Colbert didn't flinch, as usual, and said, "Well, if I were imitating you, Bill, I would, but there's a difference between imitation and emulation."
Asking these questions demonstrated, of course, that O'Reilly was not being serious. Instead, "Papa Bear," as Colbert calls O'Reilly, happily played along with Colbert the character. On Comedy Central, O'Reilly took all of Colbert's jabs in stride, laughing, for example, at the copy of his book Colbert presented, which had a giant "30 percent off" sticker covering O'Reilly's face.
That may do something to convince Colbert's fans that O'Reilly isn't just a humorless ideologue, just as O'Reilly's fans may have found Colbert to be a talented, if opinionated, comedian.
On his own show, O'Reilly spent a considerable amount of time kidding around as well, focusing on the pronunciation of Colbert's last name (which is pronounced "coal-bear"). He even joked, presumably, that O'Reilly had "talked to your third-grade teacher" about the subject. "Who are you? Are you Coal-bert or Coal-bear?" O'Reilly yelled, barely containing his amusement beneath his faux outrage.
O'Reilly resumed being O'Reilly in the next segment, when he asked his panelists, "Why do you think the press loves them?" Those eight words are indicative of what O'Reilly does so well that Colbert mocks so well.
First, O'Reilly suddenly lumped "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" together, even though they're distinct, different programs. (There are elements of satire in "The Daily Show," but Stewart always plays it straight, while Colbert's entire show is an often exhausting satirical act.) Second, O'Reilly made a point by simply asking a question; he suggested that it is only the demonic, liberal media who likes Colbert, even if that notion of a hive-minded "press" is a built out of straw.
Ironically, Colbert's interview was the slightly more issue-oriented one, as he asked questions about political issues that allowed O'Reilly to respond with real, if brief, answers. "What is the culture war, and why's it so important?" Colbert asked. "The culture war is between secular progressives like yourself..." O'Reilly began, but Colbert interrupted, "I'm not a secular progressive." O'Reilly threw back, "You're not?"
‘I'm not a tough guy’
That was the most substantive exchange they had on either show. O'Reilly was clearly addressing Colbert the actor and comedian with that response, but Colbert broke character only once, during a moment when O'Reilly broke character, too.
"I'm not a tough guy. This is all an act. I'm sensitive," the FOX News host said on Comedy Central.
"If you're an act, than what am I?" Colbert replied.
That fascinating, quasi-philosophical question was the closest either interview came to approaching a discussion about the relationship between the two men. Does Colbert believe what he satirizes, or is O'Reilly just an easy, convenient target to help him draw a sympathetic audience? Is O'Reilly actually outraged, or just using convenient targets to help him draw a sympathetic audience?
Of course the interview concluded right after Colbert asked that question, and it was never answered. That's unfortunate, as it would have been even more interesting than watching the two discuss actual issues, which, of course, they avoided.
These appearances, it seemed, were not designed for the two men to engage each other, but instead to play off of one another. That was entertaining, but rather familiar. Both Bill O'Reilly and Stephen Colbert demonstrate on a nightly basis that they know how to play their respective games quite well.