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Jay Leno talks politics and humor with Lawrence O’Donnell

Tonight Show host Jay Leno sat down with Lawrence O'Donnell to talk about the intersection of politics and humor.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Tonight Show host Jay Leno sat down with Lawrence O'Donnell to talk about the intersection of politics and humor.

Politicians have been visiting The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for a long time. Governors, presidential candidates, former presidents, and even one sitting president (Barack Obama is the first) have met Leno on the late-nite stage to show their casual side.

The experience gives pols a platform to be light and comedic, a rare opportunity in their solemn profession. As an interviewer, Jay Leno treats his political guests like any other. On The Last Word Tuesday, the late-night host spoke about why politicians come on his show again and again.

“I don’t have an agenda,” Leno told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell. “I don’t go in there with a–there’s no ‘gotcha’ questions. It’s not ‘Aha! Well let me ask you about that!’ I think the real trick is to let them answer the question, and wait until they finish talking.”

President Obama has appeared on The Tonight Show six times, four times as president. His latest visit was Tuesday night, when he sat down with Leno to talk about topics as wide-ranging as Obamacare, Edward Snowden, and his love of broccoli.

Obama comes to Leno to find a wider audience for his message, those who are ”not necessarily readers of newspapers or wire services or necessarily the viewers of cable or broadcast news shows,” White House press Secretary Jay Carney said early Tuesday.

Presidential campaigns usually see a heavy traffic of candidates on The Tonight Show. Last time around, in 2012, Obama, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, Ron Paul, and Mitt Romney all made appearances. Usually the experience is a humanizing one for candidates, but Leno says you can only push the “average guy” thing so far.

“I remember when we had John Kerry on, and he came on on a motorcycle and had a beer, and it just seemed, like we’re pushing a little too hard here,” he said on Meet The Press last year. “I mean I like John Kerry but I just felt like, ‘really?’ Like he rode up a bike on a ramp, you know and had the leather jacket–‘he’s a regular guy, by golly,’ you know. And it was just very funny.”

As for Leno’s own political affiliations, he tries to keep them out of the picture. He told O’Donnell that while he doesn’t think he can predict who’ll win, he does get a sense of who won’t. An example? He told O’Donnell that he “never quite got the Rick Perry thing.” “My thing is to go down the center,” Leno said on The Last Word.

“I remember we had a comedian on the show one time, and his opening line was ‘I’m a Democrat!’ And I said to him, ‘Just do your act. Believe me they’ll figure out you’re a Democrat. But why lose half the audience when you walk out there.’” To put his philosophy more simply, Leno added, “You start as a comedian, then you’re a humorist, than your a satirist, then you’re out of the business.”