Why Late-Night TV Has Become the Place to Be for the 2016

von Judy Kurtz |  Natalie Finn 6. Oktober 2015 – 03:30

The hottest place to be for a presidential hopeful these days isn’t kissing babies at a local diner or standing behind a podium delivering a stump speech—it’s sitting down on a late-night talk show couch.

From Democrats Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Sen. Bernie Sanders to a growing number of the dozen-plus GOP candidates, including Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, and Sen. Ted Cruz, the post-prime-time TV circuit has become a crucial stop on the way to the White House.

Just in the last month, it’s been nearly impossible to tune in without seeing a 2016 contender attempting to yuk it up.

Late-night TV hosts

Both Trump and Clinton made appearances last month on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Trump also sat down on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, as have Sanders, Cruz and Bush. Meanwhile, Trevor Noah landed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during his first week on the job as host of The Daily Show, O’Malley had some laughs on Late Night With Seth Meyers, Sanders met with Larry Wilmore at a coffee shop for a Nightly Show segment and Clinton went toe-to-toe with the Kate McKinnon version of herself on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live.

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The reason for the sudden blitz, says Robert Lichter, who runs George Mason University’s Center for Media and Public Affairs, is simple.

“The minute one candidate appears, every candidate wants to appear,” he explains to E! News. “If you don’t have a good debate performance, and you don’t make news, then this is a way to spotlight your candidacy.”

At this point in the race, it’s all about grabbing the TV spotlight.

“They’re trying to get beyond Donald Trump,” says Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “Appealing to broader audiences through an already established medium like The Tonight Show, or any of them, helps them drive their message to audiences. But also it’s free media. The media will cover what happens on these late-night talk shows. Most interactions that occur end up being news stories the next day.”

Hollywood gets political

Whether it’s seemingly scripted moments—such as Fallon taking a tug on Clinton’s hair or Colbert playing a who-said-it game of “Trump or Colbert?” (the Colbert Report Colbert, that is)—a foray into late-night can be a big boost for a candidate, a slam-dunk headline grabber without the risk of being peppered with probing questions, notes Bonjean.

“The pros are you’re getting your message out through a large audience and a media that’s not trying to play a ‘gotcha’ game,” he explained.

“If you excel at it, it’s a big plus: You’re self-deprecating, you’ve got a sense of humor, you don’t take yourself so seriously,” says Fox News Channel contributor Joe Trippi, who served as Howard Dean‘s campaign manager.

Red-hot Republicans

“You get to show yourself as a real human being, with apologies,” says Lichter, author of Politics is a Joke!: How TV Comedians are Remaking Political Life. “Unlike dealing with journalists, these hosts are not looking for gotchas. They’re not even looking for news. They’re just looking for a good conversation.”

Political candidates didn’t always see the appeal of appearing late at night, however. Bill Clinton really changed the game when he donned a pair of shades and showed off his saxophone skills with his rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992.

“Clinton played the sax and Bob Dole said it wasn’t presidential. Who became president?” declares Lichter. (Dole ran against Clinton in 1996.) “Once this trend started, once it became a stage for politicians, it became something they had to do.”

But as necessary as making the late-night rounds may be, there can be a lot of potential landmines on the quest for laughs.

Dashing Democrats

“There are some candidates that find them uncomfortable,” says Trippi, alum of, among others, John Edwards‘ and Ted Kennedy‘s presidential campaigns. “They don’t have a quick wit or something, and if that shows up on those shows, it’s deadly. I mean nothing would be worse than being a complete flat dud on Fallon or Saturday Night Live.”

Bonjean, a partner at the Washington-based public relations firm Rokk Solutions, echoes the sentiment, saying, “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. 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.”

And although several of the late-night hosts are still new to the scene when it comes to their current posts—Fallon took over The Tonight Show in February 2014, while Colbert and Noah kicked off their respective shows just last month—they’re already getting a reputation for their styles while interacting with political guests.

Fallon, Lichter says, would be his “first choice” if he were a candidate because the comedian’s “considered more of a softball host” and is “really not comfortable pushing candidates on political issues.” Colbert—who was widely praised for a poignant interview last month with Vice President Joe Biden (a potential 2016 candidate)—is becoming known for more “straightforward interviews,” says Lichter.

While some of the front-runners may have their pick of the late-night landscape, other candidates, Trippi says, are likely desperate to get booked.

(NBC and E! Online are both members of the NBCUniversal family.)

“I’m sure Trump, everybody was calling him saying, ‘I want you on my show.’ Others may promise to set their hair on fire to get on the show or have some angle to pitch on why they should invite you on.”

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Former and current 2016 presidential candidates

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