Since the days the Toast of the Town and the Texaco Star Theater late-night talk shows have, under the guidance of television legends like Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and Merv Griffin, evolved into a humor institution in the United States. Late-night talk shows enjoy a very public and influential position in American life, which is why controversies within the subject have such a significant news value. When Carson, the King of Late Night, quit the choice of replacement caused a rift between Jay Leno and David Letterman that was covered by the press and actually resulted in a HBO film adaptation. Some two decades later, when Leno asked for his show back months after retiring and handing the show over to Conan O’Brien, the fight was again fought out in public. Given their roles as the nation’s public humor institutions, late-night talk shows are also attractive for presidential candidates hoping to form their image in a light setting.
Back in 2012 President Barack Obama joined Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show for an interview and a segment called Slow Jam the News, where he recited news while Fallon provided comedic commentary and his house band The Roots provided a smooth musical soundtrack. The appearance was hailed by the audience but criticized by conservative commentators. Gretchen Carlson on Fox News lamented how the appearance “lowers the status of the office” and called it “nutso”.
Similarly, when Obama recently visited Jimmy Kimmel Live! he participated in one of the show’s most popular comedy segments: Mean Tweets. The bit is very simple, a celebrity reads actual negative messages directed at them on Twitter while Everybody Hurts by R.E.M. plays in the background. While the appearance was incredibly popular, drawing millions of views on YouTube, some found it unworthy of the presidency.
When will we get a President who is more like a behind the scenes CEO and not a megalomaniacal elected dictator obsessed with fame and public image?”
Yet late-night television appearances have long been a part of the political sphere. Going back to 1960, both John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon visited Jack Paar on the Tonight Show. Ronald Reagan appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the run-up to his campaign to unseat Gerald Ford as the Republican nominee in 1976. When Bill Clinton came on The Arsenio Hall Show and showed off his saxophone talent, political commentators accused him of demeaning the presidency, yet the appearance came to shape his image as a relatable leader. The same quality helped George W. Bush 8 years later, as he showed off his folksy side in late-night chats.
Like it or not late-night television is an appreciated domain for politicians seeking or holding the highest office. This has been especially clear this autumn as the race for the 2016 election is moving into high gear. Since the end of August a presidential contender has appeared on one of the main late-night talk shows a total of 14 times (as of October 28, 2015). The number can be viewed as both high (roughly every third night of late-night, there is a candidate campaigning) and low (when combining the Democratic and Republican fields the candidates, including the ones who have now dropped out, exceed twenty). There is clear patterns visible in these appearances; the bulk of them are on Stephen Colbert’s new Late Show (5) or Comedy Central’s two late-night shows (3). Neither James Corden nor Conan O’Brien have hosted any candidates this fall and Kimmel has only had Bernie Sanders on. It is clear that Colbert is staying with what he knows and is making his domain one far more political than his late-night competition (besides the presidential candidates he has hosted the First Lady, Secretary of State John Kerry, Senators John McCain and Elizabeth Warren, and even Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer). Despite the far broader Republican field they have only one more appearance on late-night thus far this autumn, with five candidates appearing twice; Secretary Hillary Clinton, Governor Martin O’Malley, Senator Bernie Sanders, Governor Chris Christie, and of course Donald Trump.
With the exception of the late-night veteran Trump, the only candidate from the conservative wing who has entered the lion’s den is Senator Ted Cruz. For late-night remains a space that can be uncomfortable for conservatives, and indeed Cruz was booed by the studio audience for his conservative views. Stephen Colbert pleaded with the audience to show Cruz respect as an invited guest and has taken decisive steps for partisan balance among his guests. But it is clear that the arena is far more risky for conservative candidates than moderate or liberal ones.
For more commentary on the 2016 elections, check out the interdisciplinary election podcast Campaign Context at www.campaigncontext.wordpress.com.