The landscape of America’s late-night television hosts might be changing this fall but the 2016 White House hopefuls continue to flock to their talk shows in the hopes of getting a laugh, a viral moment, or, just maybe, some new supporters.
Jeb Bush will sit down with Stephen Colbert when he makes his debut as host of the “Late Show” on Tuesday. Joe Biden, who is considering a Democratic presidential run, will appear on the show two nights later. And never one to be outdone, Donald Trump is set to appear on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon on Friday.
The replacement of comedic heavyweights Jay Leno, David Letterman and Jon Stewart with a new class of hosts — with the notable exception of Colbert — not as familiar to the candidates as their predecessors leaves a major question mark about what role the shows may play this presidential campaign. But that has not stopped attention hungry candidates in a crowded presidential field from venturing on to new shows at the risk of being the butt of the joke.
“These shows give candidates the chance to show off their humanity, and it’s a way of introducing themselves to people who don’t watch the news,” said Robert Lichter, a professor at George Mason University who studies the intersection of politics and late-night humor.
Such was the case for then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton when he played saxophone and charmed Johnny Carson after being panned for a boring and long-winded speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1988. “Bill Clinton has gone from the media doghouse to media darling in one short week,” the Associated Press wrote in an account of his appearance.
Now just about anyone seeking the White House hopes to mimic that kind of success in their late-night appearances.
“If a candidate goes on and says, ‘Let me tell you about my three-point plan, Mr. Fallon.’ That’s a disaster,” said Jon Macks, a Democratic political consultant who spent 22 years writing jokes for Jay Leno. “They want to hear personal stories about who these people are.”
The 2016 field has so far flocked to late-night to get some attention, re-introduce themselves to voters, or simply show that they know how to have some fun.
The normally stoic Bush went viral when he “slow jammed the news” with Fallon shortly after announcing his bid. Carly Fiorina successfully countered bad headlines about the website carlyfiorina.org, which features sad-face emoticons representing the people she laid off as head of Hewlett-Packard, during an appearance on “Late Night” with Seth Meyers. (When Meyers brought it up, she revealed to him that she had just purchased sethmeyers.org and linked it to her actual campaign website.) And Chris Christie joked about his weight during his sixth appearance — but first as a presidential candidate — on Fallon.
But late-night appearances can also come with pitfalls when politicians let their guards down and enter the realm of comedy. President Barack Obama had to apologize after comparing his poor bowling to “like the Special Olympics, or something” while talking to Leno. And Letterman mercilessly blasted John McCain in the final month of the 2008 campaign after the GOP nominee cancelled on him after suspending his campaign in the wake of the financial collapse.
Other appearances featuring 2016 candidates have also been rocky. Meyers politely prodded Ted Cruz over issues like climate change and gay marriage. When Cruz brought up his 21-hour talkathon to protest Obamacare, Meyers quipped, “How’d it go?” to laughter and applause.
“I believe the late-night camera lenses give people a better sense of who these candidates are than even Sunday show camera lenses can,” said Macks.
Republicans have long felt Leno was their safest place in the world of late-night television, and his retirement means campaigns will be watching with great interest how Colbert translates his mock conservatism to The Late Show. Pew Research studies have found the Colbert Report audience was largely liberal, and having a Republican presidential candidate on the first night of the show may act as an olive branch meant to broaden the comedian’s appeal.
Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, has also been featured in an ad leading up to the start of Colbert’s show, and appeared on Fallon’s Tonight Show earlier this year. But the two-time presidential candidate was not as interested in the late-night circuit during the height of the last presidential campaign.
Show producers tried desperately to court Romney to no avail, while President Barack Obama made the rounds to nearly all the late-night shows, including “The Daily Show,” in the final weeks of his re-election campaign.
Aides to Romney say they saw little benefit in sitting the candidate down with a comedian who may have different political leanings. Letterman told his audience not to vote for the former Massachusetts governor unless he appeared on The Late Show (which he did not during his 2012 run). And as for doing Leno, advisers say making it out to the West Coast when the focus of the campaign is on states like Ohio and Florida made it difficult.
“Scheduling wise, Los Angeles is tough to pull off an appearance in general,” a former Romney aide said. “If [Leno] was in New York like Fallon is now, Mitt would have done a lot more.”
Lechter’s research indicates why conservatives have sometimes been wary of appearing on the shows. A 2010 analysis of eight-months worth of monologues from the shows found that Letterman and Stewart aimed three out of five partisan jokes at Republicans, while Leno and Fallon targeted Democrats in at least two out of three jokes.
But Fallon has said he has little interest in getting into interviews that are too serious, telling the New York Times “other people do that better.” Instead he has focused on creating viral hits that penetrate the Internet and can be enjoyed by those with early bedtimes.
And it’s not just the well-known comedy shows where candidates are now showing off their softer side.
Some of funniest and most Internet-friendly content this campaign has come from digital news sites Independent Journal Review and Buzzfeed. Lindsey Graham memorably destroyed his cellphone using a blender, golf club and fire in an IJReview.com video that has racked up more than two million views on YouTube. Cruz performed a number of “Simpsons” impressions in a Buzzfeed video, as well as made “machine-gun bacon” in a post for IJReview.
Though some candidates have successfully had their viral moments, none so far have been able to break the hold Trump has on the 2016 race.
That may be part of the reason Bush, who is continuing to struggle in the polls, is willing to walk onto the Colbert set on day one, with no real idea how the host will treat his political guests.
“It’s like Colbert’s announcing, ‘Hey, I’m going to be bipartisan,’ and Bush is announcing, ‘Hey, I’m not afraid to go into the lion’s den,’” said Lichter.