As politicians throw their hats in the ring for the 2016 presidential race, they may want to consider booking John Oliver as well as John Dickerson. According to 22-year Tonight Show veteran writer Jon Macks, late-night talk shows are key podiums for ambitious candidates.
As Macks explains in his new book Monologue: What Makes America Laugh Before Bed, late show appearances can go a long way in establishing (or improving) a politician’s image. Take Bill Clinton’s 1988 appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He wasn’t a candidate yet, but he had just given a speech for Michael Dukakis at the Democratic convention, and it fell flat. As Macks puts it, after he played the saxophone for Johnny Carson, “he was declared ‘politically rehabilitated’ and had moved from the loser of the week to political winner of the week.” It may not have been enough to help Dukakis, but it established Clinton as a fun guy, the proverbial candidate you could have a beer with.
In 2008, Macks says he could gauge waxing and waning support for Obama and McCain based on the audience reaction to Jay Leno’s jokes. “The key to divining the current status or future prospects of a candidate,” he writes, “is when the audience laughs at the mere mention of the name instead of waiting for the joke.”
Obama was something of a punchline on the show just as his numbers were shrinking, but then McCain called the economy “fundamentally sound” despite the collapse of Lehman Brothers, giving late night hosts a new angle. In the weeks before Election Day, Jay Leno joked, “Today John McCain campaigned in the Ohio town of Defiance. Next comes Anger, then finally Acceptance.” David Letterman took it a step further when McCain canceled an appearance on his Late Show: “This doesn’t smell right. This is not the way a tested hero behaves. Somebody’s putting something in his Metamucil.” The numbers started to shift in Obama’s favor — not because late-night necessarily has an influence on the candidates, but because the shows are a bellwether of national mood.
Comedy can be an influence, though, according to Macks. “Jokes are a thermometer,” he writes, “but they are also a thermostat. If a person or event is a blank canvas and each late-night host is using his monologue to paint that canvas, then those jokes and shows are creating opinions about people and events, not just reflecting what is out there already.”
A word to the wise for Cruz, Paul, Rubio, Clinton and any others: call the bookers. It won’t stop comedians from mocking you, but it will show you can take a joke. And if there’s one thing America can’t stand, it’s a candidate with no sense of humor.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the show Bill Clinton appeared on in 1988. It was The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.