When President Obama read “Mean Tweets” on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” this week, he was merely getting in on the joke.
Where once it was very unlikely that a sitting president would appear on a latenight talk show, Obama has made it a given, not just to sit with a host and do a breezy interview, but to also engage in a comedy skit.
When Obama made his first appearance since taking office on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” in 2009, pundits wondered whether it was too unpresidential; those criticisms have abated. Now the question is what can draw attention and get people listening.
Presidential contenders have made a point of visiting latenight talk shows ever since candidate Bill Clinton went on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in 1992, playing the saxophone and helping boost his likability.
“It’s become part of a political campaign, and you do violence to your own campaign if you don’t try to take advantage of this opportunity,” Robert Lichter, co-author of the book “Politics Is a Joke!,” tells Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM. He is a professor at George Mason University and the director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
Candidates actually first appeared on latenight talk shows as far back as the early 1960s, when candidate John F. Kennedy was a guest on Jack Paar’s “Tonight” show. But it was not until the 1990s that Jay Leno and David Letterman began to book politicians, and Leno in particular peppered his monologues with political humor.
Lichter said politicians logged more than 100 appearances on latenight TV in the 2008 presidential cycle. That dropped in 2012, given that only Republicans had a contested primary. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, was reluctant to do latenight shows, but “he eventually came around to the realization that you just can’t avoid these platforms anymore.”
No recent president was the butt of more jokes than Bill Clinton, according to Lichter. But it was also Clinton who really showed the benefits of appearing on latenight talk shows, not just with the guest spot on Arsenio Hall’s show, but one four years earlier on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” After a verbose, 35-minute speech at the Democratic National Convention, Clinton was skewered by Carson night after night, and Clinton’s solution was to get a booking on his show. The result was an appearance that showed off Clinton’s persona and his ability to laugh at himself. It was also an exercise in damage control.
Lichter believes that Hillary Clinton would be helped by a late-night visit as a way of countering some of the coverage over her use of a private email server while she was secretary of State.
Variety‘s David Cohen and U.S. News’ Nikki Schwab talk about how pop culture may be shaping perceptions of Hillary Clinton even before a potential campaign begins, what with a recent “Saturday Night Live” skit and the upcoming Off Broadway production of “Clinton, the Musical.”
George Nolfi, creator of “Allegiance,” talks about how he tried to inject more bureaucratic realism into the genre of government thrillers. The show was recently canceled by NBC, but remaining episodes are being streamed on NBC.com.
“PopPolitics,” hosted by Variety’s Ted Johnson, airs Thursdays at 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT on SiriusXM’s political channel POTUS.