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The Bill O’Reilly-Jon Stewart ‘Rumble’: More Than a Jab-Fest?

If you thought the first political debate didn't mix it up enough, the second one is much more likely to deliver.

Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly
Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly

No, not the meeting between Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin on Oct. 11, but rather the “Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium,” the hyped-up showdown Saturday night between rival cable personalities Jon Stewart, in the left corner, and Bill O’Reilly, in the right.

In “an old-fashioned duel of the wits,” O’Reilly and Stewart will step up to the podiums at 8 p.m. EDT in front of a sold-out auditorium at George Washington University. Those who can’t make it to Washington, D.C., can pay $4.95 to watch the live-streamed event (www.therumble2012.com), which the promotional video calls “the reason Al Gore invented the Internet.”

Half the proceeds from the "debate" will go to charities, but let's be honest here. The rumble serves as a giant promotion to attract more followers to “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” on Comedy Central and “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News.

Still, the O'Reilly-Stewart tussle is not without redeeming social value. The "info" part of infotainment, some argue, can actually serve to breed interest in real political and civic issues among those who are politically disengaged.

Entertainment provides a “gateway” to broader political engagement, says Lauren Feldman, an assistant professor at American University in Washington, D.C. She observed this connection in her research on how “Daily Show” viewers are engaged in issues like climate change. “Humor and substance are not dichotomous phenomena,” she says.

The debate will appeal to people who are already fans of their shows and already politically engaged, Dr. Feldman says. But the "substantive discussion" that Stewart and O'Reilly have promised may, in fact, inspire more people to pay attention, especially when debate clips circulate over social media afterward.

Comedy Central’s other fake news host, Stephen Colbert of “The Colbert Report,” has occasionally inserted his TV persona into the real world of politics, as well – he testified before Congress in 2010 and, this year, created his own "super PAC" (Making A Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow) during the Republican presidential primary.

“[Mr.] Colbert found an entertaining way to inform people: What does it mean to start a super PAC? How is it legal? What is the process?” says Lindsay Hoffman, assistant professor at the University of Delaware. “It’s like hiding broccoli in chocolate cake.”

How much of an ideological prizefight the rumble turns out to be remains to be seen. O'Reilly and Stewart have appeared numerous times on each other's shows, and over time their sparring has become increasingly civil — some might even say friendly. Still, viewers who still aren't sure if the two like each other or not may be eager to see them match wits.

“It always strikes me as bizarre, this idea that the people you disagree with you should not ever engage with,” Stewart said Thursday on "Good Morning America." “He will weep most likely like a child, but that’s not the most important part. We’re going to have fun and a good, substantive conversation.”

The debate is expected to be full of the jocular insults that the two men are fond of hurling at each other. O’Reilly’s suggestion for the debate’s first question: Why Jon Stewart is a pinhead.

So, what colors will their ties be? How will their body language demonstrate their leadership styles?

Pundits and political junkies have yet to weigh in on these issues. Nor have they anticipated Stewart’s strategy for dealing with the height difference. At 6 feet, 4 inches, O’Reilly towers over Stewart’s 5-feet, 6-inch frame. When O'Reilly joined Stewart Thursday on "The Daily Show" to promote the rumble and his new book, he made repeated references to Stewart as "tiny." Stewart, in turn, said to O'Reilly: "I see you as, like, an Abominable Snowman, ... like all I have to do is get out of your peripheral vision and I'll be fine."

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