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The dual town halls of U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and U.S. President Donald Trump, who are both running in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, are seen on television monitors at Luv Child restaurant ahead of the election in Tampa, Fla., on Oct. 15, 2020.

OCTAVIO JONES/Reuters

Apparently, Donald Trump is pro-wacko conspiracy theories while Joe Biden is anti-wacko anything. This is not news per se, but it was newly underlined in the duelling TV town halls the U.S. presidential candidates conducted on Thursday night.

It was a kooky TV-watching conflict to begin with. Only in Trump’s America could a voting public be faced with the choice of watching one candidate or the other as they yakked away on competing networks at exactly the same time. Turns out it was like trying to choose between The Apprentice and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

You could see why Trump thought it was a sweet deal, self-described master of the TV universe that he is. If Biden was getting an hour on ABC to talk to voters with George Stephanopoulos moderating, then by heavens Trump was taking a free hour of promotion on NBC with Savannah Guthrie and some voters asking questions. Guthrie he would know as a smiling co-host of NBC’s news-lite morning show and amiable host of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade broadcast.

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About four minutes in, you could see the uh-oh look on Trump’s face. Guthrie was persistently asking him to tell the truth about exactly when he was tested for COVID-19 in relation to his Sept 29 debate with Biden. “I dunno,” Trump said twice. As the hour went on, Guthrie proceeded to shred, julienne and mash Trump. He responded often with gibberish. The climax, a great TV moment of scathing evisceration, was Guthrie asking Trump about helping spread an outrageous theory that the killing of Osama bin Laden was “staged” by the Obama administration.

“That was a retweet! People can decide for themselves,” Trump attempted in reply. Guthrie then said what everyone was thinking: “I don’t get it. You’re the President, you’re not someone’s crazy uncle.”

Meanwhile on ABC, Biden’s town hall was moseying along. It was hard going, to be honest, compared with the precision-knife assassination of Trump’s credibility that was on NBC. If you were trying to watch both at the same time, your fingers kept itching to switch back to the spine-tingling search and destroy mission on NBC. Biden was interested in a chat, in telling stories about his dad and in encouraging people to just get along.

At about the time Biden was explaining that he would take a vaccine if health experts endorsed it, and would encourage every American to do so, a Trump proxy and frequent Fox News contributor, one Mercedes Schlapp, took to Twitter to pronounce on one half of the TV event: “@ABCPolitics town hall feels like I am watching an episode of Mister Rodgers Neighborhood.”

This was meant to be derisory, but just as Schlapp misspelled the TV icon’s name, she missed the point. People like Mister Rogers. They grew up with him, as they grew up with Joe Biden being around, and they like Mister Rogers' neighbourhood. It’s nice there. Through one failure in Twitter sarcasm, this Fox News contributor inadvertently nailed down the entirely of the TV event. It was crazy uncle versus Mister Rogers. There are crazy uncles everywhere, Fox News teems with them, but there’s only one Mister Rogers.

The thing about live TV is that it’s unpredictable. Not even a stable genius can wing it for an hour with bluster and belligerence. And even TV veterans and Emmy-winners cannot predict the outcome. More than 100 top TV figures sent a petition to NBCUniversal protesting the timing of the town hall and it airing opposite ABC’s town hall with Joe Biden.

The petition declared, “You are enabling the President’s bad behavior while undercutting the Presidential Debate Commission and doing a disservice to the American public.” It concluded with, “This is not a partisan issue. This is about the political health of our democracy.”

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A lot they know, as it turns out. Jimmy Kimmel, too. On Wednesday, Kimmel’s monologue included this rant: “Thanks, NBC! First The Apprentice and now this. Why not a new Bill Cosby special while we’re at it? There is no good reason to hold these events simultaneously. They could delay them.”

As it happens, the NBC town hall was a sublime plot twist. If NBC was guilty of elevating and empowering Trump with The Apprentice, lo those many years ago, it can now stand accused of reducing Trump to the crazy uncle who holds conspiracy theories and can’t explain his tax situation because a mysterious audit is ongoing. What Savannah Guthrie did was say, without saying it, “You’re fired.”

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