TAMPA — On television, they're intense advocates for the conservative cause — men who have built media empires on provocative commentary and in-your-face attitude.
But onstage Friday, Fox News Channel stars Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck needled each other like old buddies bellied up to a well-stocked bar. The pair regaled 16,000 people at two sold-out shows at the University of South Florida's Sun Dome on their landmark Bold and Fresh tour.
"Beck (started) as a DJ … I think he was called Bubba the Love Sponge?" said O'Reilly, sparking a wave of laughter from the 4 p.m. crowd, who recognized the reference to one of Tampa's most notorious shock jocks. "He's my sock puppet now."
"Is it true Fox Business (Network) hired Don Imus to make you look younger?" Beck cracked later. "And have you ever thought Nancy Pelosi looks like Skeletor?"
The back-and-forth banter drew howls from delighted fans, some of whom had flown in from Michigan and Kentucky to see their TV heroes together. As you might expect at a show featuring two of the right-leaning cable news channel's biggest stars, this was a crowd celebrating the election of a Republican to the Senate from Massachusetts and eager to see President Obama's health care initiatives defeated.
Even the mention of talk show queen Oprah Winfrey drew boos, as Beck described placing second to her in a poll for America's Most Loved TV Personality. He also got laughs describing the White House trying to rent the Sun Dome on Friday for an Obama rally, only to discover he and O'Reilly already had it — though the administration actually wanted to schedule the event on Thursday.
For the 8 p.m. show, high definition cameras roamed the stage and aisles, filming the show for telecast to theaters tonight.
And the message was clear: America is in a mess, and liberals are mostly to blame.
O'Reilly was the more cerebral of the two, allowing that President Barack Obama was a smart man facing economic problems beyond his control — drawing some murmurs of disapproval from the crowd.
But his offhand jibes about "some guy from Punjab" becoming your doctor if Medicare reimbursements were cut were insensitive to the point of insult.
"Do you care what (the world) thinks of our justice system?" said O'Reilly, ridiculing one of the standard arguments used for bringing terrorists to trial in civilian courts. "Have them drive through a small town in Florida, and they'll find out what the justice system is like."
Beck did show a sentimental side, describing how Time magazine's use of a photo he took exclusively for another magazine ruined his faith in journalists.
"I feel like I'm losing my humanity at work … I meet these politicians and people in media and I hate them; they're liars," Beck said, noting later — without irony — that ABC anchor Diane Sawyer gave him sage advice about the job he holds.
"You will spend the rest of your life bone tired," Beck quoted Sawyer telling him. "But you will do things very few people get to do."
Watching an arena full of fans cheering Beck's every joke and observation, you understood what Sawyer meant.
In many ways, getting to the show was the biggest challenge for some fans. The crush of cars led to traffic jams that delayed some people for up to an hour. Both the 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. shows were delayed by nearly 20 minutes, allowing more fans to pile in.
As they trudged to the arena, rows of sign-waving people greeted them — some talking up GOP U.S. Senate contender Marco Rubio, others angrily denouncing conservatives with homemade placards proclaiming "Proud to be part of the gay agenda."
Inside, they faced metal detectors, bag searches and the kind of security usually reserved for heads of state.
But Janet Lichon, 61, was undeterred. Flying to Tampa from her Saginaw, Mich., home for the show, she praised Beck and O'Reilly as a voice for her frustration.
"They're saying what we want to say," she added. "We're tired of it all."