The changed politics of late-night TV

February 26, 2014

This article, by Hadas Gold, originally appeared on Politico.

The curtain rose this week on a new era of late-night TV — altering the terrain for politicians who frequent the shows and complicating life for Republicans, who have lost their most comfortable seat in front of the camera.

“The whole landscape’s about to change,” Arsenio Hall, the recently reincarnated late-night host, said in an interview. “Jay [Leno] going home is going to change it for a lot of people.”

Jimmy Fallon replaced Leno — who was seen as the one late-night host with a welcome mat out for the GOP — and moved “The Tonight Show” back to New York City after decades in Hollywood. Beyond the location, expect another big departure from Leno: Not nearly as many heavy-hitting political jokes or guests.

Fallon, who is eyed a bit warily by some Republicans, had first lady Michelle Obama on Thursday — they have a chemistry between them — after launching his new show on Monday. He said recently that his show will not be the place to go for in-depth interviews with politicians and candidates.

Obama and Fallon’s only foray into politics during her appearance was a pitch about Obamacare’s provision that allows children to stay on their parent’s health insurance until age 26, with a quick quip from Fallon about the problem-plagued finally working.

“(The website is) working now. It’s so much better when it’s working,” Fallon said.

As part of the new late-night lineup, Seth Meyers is taking over Fallon’s old spot on “Late Night,” and the former “Saturday Night Live” head writer has said he does plan to focus on politics. In fact, Vice President Joe Biden will be one of his first guests on Monday, when the show debuts. Meyers and his team declined an interview request.

With the 2014 midterms not far off and the 2016 presidential cycle already in motion, a seat on a late-night host’s couch is an important place for politicians who are looking to soften their image, reach a young-ish audience and prove they have a sense of humor like any average Joe.

But there will definitely be less pure politics without Leno, experts said. While Leno and “Late Show” host David Letterman have relied heavily on politics in their monologues and had many politicians on as guests, Fallon turns political only when there’s a story so big it can’t be ignored, said Robert Lichter, director of Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University and the author of the forthcoming book Politics Is a Joke: How TV Comedians Are Remaking Political Life.”

“[Johnny] Carson initiated political humor on late night, but Leno put it on steroids,” Lichter said. “Leno always told far more political jokes than anyone else. With folks like Fallon and others, you’ve got political humor when something big happens … so, for Fallon, politics is just one of many areas. For Leno, it was a major part of his arsenal.”

Fallon’s slimmed-down diet of politics may not be a bad thing, said Erik Smith, Obama’s senior adviser for advertising and message development during the 2008 and 2012 campaigns. As opposed to what Smith called a “sense of cynicism” toward politics that Leno and Letterman exhibit in their monologues, Fallon’s skits and stunts — like the “slow jam” — bring out a softer side of a candidate and are more likely to go viral.

“The type of stuff Fallon does, from a [political] strategist point of view, will be a lot more helpful, because you’re actually showing a side of a politician most people can’t see, which is really fun,” Smith said. “When Obama slow-jammed with Fallon, he was talking about student loans. He got his message across. That was more effective than going on a talk show.”

Sen. John McCain, one of the most prolific political late-night guests, said he often tries to encourage his fellow members of Congress to hit the late-night circuit but that it can be a hard sell.

“I’ve always encouraged my colleagues to go on as many of these shows as possible, because it’s a unique way to touch an audience that generally you never are able to reach under any other medium or format. And don’t think a lot of them aren’t scared,” the Arizona Republican said in an interview.

While the entertainment world has always had a liberal veneer, and the political leanings of the late-night hosts have been hotly debated for years, one thing seems clear: It is Republicans who will miss Leno most.

Calling Leno his favorite late-night host, McCain said Leno would do little things like making sure there were cupcakes in the green room (McCain’s favorite) or show the senator around his car collection.

“That’s just the kind of guy he is,” McCain said. “Another reason I like him so much is he uses humor but he doesn’t have the sharp edge that some others do, the kind of put-down that is popular with some others.”

Longtime Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, who has advised the presidential campaigns of McCain and George W. Bush, said losing Leno is a loss to “bipartisan political comedy.”

“Conservative candidates are justifiably going to be more cautious about other [late-night] platforms,” he said.

“Unlike other shows, specifically Letterman, Leno and his team always went out of their way to make candidates feel welcome and, more importantly, prepared. There were never any surprises,” McKinnon added. “The guests always knew ahead of time what they were likely to encounter on stage. And he and the writers were incredibly helpful suggesting scripts and ideas. And when male married candidates showed up with their spouses, they’d always have flowers for the wife. Very classy. Made candidates want to go back.”

Republican consultant and pundit Mike Murphy said that it was partly Leno’s viewership that made GOP leaders feel more comfortable.

“I think because Jay’s audience skewed a bit older and more Midwestern, the usual older GOP leader type felt an affinity for him, but I don’t think Jay’s material was any easier on GOP than Democrats at all,” Murphy said.

The data backs up Leno’s bipartisan comedy.

According to Lichter’s analysis, Leno’s jokes from 2009-2013 were 49 percent about Democrats versus 51 percent about Republicans, although President Bill Clinton was his No. 1 target over his entire hosting career. Fallon, who told three times fewer political jokes than Leno in the same time period, hit Democrats in 59 percent of his political jokes versus 41 percent for Republicans, though Lichter notes that’s likely due to the scandals surrounding politicians like Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer.

“Letterman particularly in recent years has gotten very one-sided, so if conservatives want to complain about late-night media bias, it’s Letterman and not Leno they had to worry about,” Lichter said. “I’m sure conservatives thought of Leno as more balanced, and our data bear that out to some degree.”

Letterman’s humor skewed heavily anti-Republican, Lichter found. From 2009 to 2013, 71 percent of the late-night funnyman’s jokes were targeted at the GOP, versus 29 percent for Democrats.

Last year, when news first surfaced that Leno was on his way out, conservative pundits lamented his possible exit, even though Leno has called himself a fiscal conservative but social liberal.

At the time, Matt Towery wrote on the conservative Town Hall website that Leno is like “Barry Goldwater” when compared with Letterman. “… I know that Jay Leno, like most on network TV, is a self-proclaimed ‘liberal,’ but I could care less. Next to David Letterman, he looks like Barry Goldwater,” Towery wrote.

In his first monologue on Monday night, Fallon said he’d be targeting anyone and everyone for a laugh.

But Christian Toto, assistant editor at the conservative news site Breitbart, said Fallon’s track record “isn’t promising in terms of being non-partisan.”

Noting Leno’s top ratings toward the end of his run, Toto said Leno understood the late-night rule of making fun of the president no matter the party. “Leno was talking truth to power, and it was resonating,” said Toto, who also oversees Breitbart’s Big Hollywood section.

Michele Tasoff, Leno’s longtime political booker and producer, said the interviews were never “cakewalks” for politicians.

“It won’t be an easy interview; Jay certainly has his opinions where one might stand on a particular topic or issue, but they know they’re going to get a fair shake,” Tasoff said, noting that she had politicians tell her after the shows that they enjoyed the format and were appreciative of Leno letting them talk, unlike on cable news shows. “I think that’s one reason why we’ve been successful in having so many notable politicians on the show.”

Letterman’s political booker and producer Mike Buczkiewicz said in an interview that even with Leno’s departure, he doesn’t expect much to change for pols and candidates.

“Politicians have always gravitated toward Dave, so I don’t think there’s going to be a massive change in that respect,” Buczkiewicz said. “I think Jay certainly had his handful of politicians on as well, but I don’t really see [his departure] affecting what we do here all that much.”

Buczkiewicz said that unlike the typical news show, Letterman offers politicians time to make their case.

“They’re lengthy interviews, so we give politicians time to stretch their legs a little bit; this isn’t a 45-second cable hit,” Buczkiewicz said. “With the amount of outlets politicians go to, Dave sets himself apart from the rest with the ability to have fun with them, talk with them about world hunger or serious issues that I think on first glance people would look at a subject and say, ‘Oh my, you can’t talk about that on late night’; well, Dave can do that.”

Hall said there’s an obvious difference in interview styles between the hosts in the late-night landscape, but that each one is “brilliant in their own way.”

“I love sitting and watching Letterman talk with Barack Obama, the way he did it, the way he paced it, the questions he asked, the conversational manner he did it in,” Hall said. “But I think the great thing about it, Fallon is totally different. If you’re a Fallon viewer, you like his style and how he approached it. Letterman doesn’t slow jam the news, but it was equally an exciting and meaningful appearance. You choose a host who executes the interviews and the show you want to see.”

Fallon, who declined an interview request from POLITICO, may grow into having more political guests as he settles into his new role, Lichter predicted.

“When you’re trying to build buzz for a new host, having your stuff repeated in politically oriented news is going to get it out to a wider audience. So let’s see if Fallon remains what he has been or if he tries to use some of the things Leno led the way on, even if he doesn’t go as far as Leno did,” Lichter said. “Fallon isn’t particularly good or interested in interviewing big-name politicians. But if you have presidential candidates going on the other shows and not on your show, you may have a problem, whether you like it or not.”

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