Senator Bernie Sanders — a presidential candidate who, until quite recently, was largely ignored by the mainstream media — received plenty of air time last week. Not only did he win the New Hampshire primary, but he also made appearances on such late-night comedy shows as “Saturday Night Live” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”. The Democratic candidate seemed to be embracing his appeal to younger voters and enhancing it by appearing on shows that cater to their demographic.
Late-night shows host a variety of guests every night, from actors to authors to artists to entrepreneurs. How do politicians fit into this crowd?
Moreover, why do politicians go on late-night talk shows? Do they do it for the laughs or to earn votes, or is there a far more convoluted rationale behind their appearances? What is the benefit of internet virality in the contemporary presidential race? Can undecided voters be swayed by these late-night guests?
In September of 2015, Newsweek published a story that outlined the history of politicians on late-night television. According to the article, politicians have been appearing on these shows since 1960, when JFK ran for president and appeared on “Tonight Starring Jack Paar”. However, at the time his intention was not to pander to young voters or to make jokes about memes, but rather to discuss serious discourse about the threat of communism.
Although some do talk about serious issues on late-night shows, it is clear that today’s political guests are far more self-conscious about their cultural appeal.
Throughout recent history, politicians have made appearances on such shows as “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson”, “The Arsenio Hall Show”, and the “Late Show with David Letterman”.
“By the time Bush’s run was nearly over and Barack Obama was seeking the 2008 Democratic nomination,” the Newsweek article read, “Stewart [‘The Daily Show’] and Colbert [‘The Colbert Report’] were must-stops for any candidate.”
Throughout his candidacy and his presidency, Barack Obama has appeared on a wide variety of comedy shows, ranging from Jimmy Fallon’s “Slow Jam the News” segments to Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” web show.
So far during the 2016 election season, there has been no shortage of late-night appearances by presidential hopefuls.
Take “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” for example. Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush appeared on the show’s premiere. He was soon followed by Vice President Joe Biden, who offered an emotional interview in which he discussed such matters as death, faith and presidential candidacy.
Not to be outdone, Donald Trump also appeared on the show. As did Hillary Clinton. And Ted Cruz. And on and on. Not to mention the countless times that each of these politicians has been mentioned in jokes and monologues.
What does this say about late-night hosts’ political influence? Why is it important for politicians to show face on the “post-prime-time” TV circuit? Do young people find candidates who appear on late-night talk shows to be more relatable and, therefore, more electable?
On the one hand, I want to argue that young people are not so ignorant as to be swayed by such an obvious publicity stunt.
But on the other, I also understand the PR value of appearing in a less serious, less political setting and joking around with the likes of Stephen Colbert in front of a studio audience. This is probably especially appealing to candidates during this particular election season, when everyone is trying to outshine the shenanigans of Donald Trump.
Appearing on the “Late Show” (or “The Daily Show” or “Late Night”) guarantees not only publicity on the show, but also coverage by other media sources. In addition, the interviews are mostly scripted or rehearsed (as well as edited) so there isn’t much concern about being portrayed in a negative light. Politicians chat it up with the late-night hosts, toss in some self-deprecating jokes, and look to appear as fun and human and electable as possible.
“The cons are if you make a mistake, if you appear like a wooden candidate who can’t connect beyond talking about policy and politics,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean in an E! Online article. “You actually have to be human and have a sense of humor and be conversational. If a candidate can’t pull that off, they shouldn’t go on those shows.”
In the end, how different is a presidential hopeful different from a young starlet who is trying to promote her movie? Ultimately, both are using these shows as a platform to sell something to the American public.