When American late-night television fans hear the famous words, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night,” there is only one thing they can be sure of— it’s time for “Saturday Night Live.” The popular late-night comedy show that’s been around since 1975, and is known for their celebrity guest hosts and comedy sketches that parody contemporary pop-culture and politics.
Just 40 years ago, Gerald Ford became the first sitting president to ever grace “SNL,” merely contributing a few pre-taped lines— one of which being the signature opening phrase. However, the beginning of political figures on late-night television dates back even further to the 1960 Presidential election. John F. Kennedy appeared on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show” as the first major political candidate to go on a late-night show.
Many other presidential candidates have since followed in Kennedy’s footsteps, appearing on a number of various late night programs. Along with Kennedy, candidates Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have all paved the way for people in power to appear on late-night television.
But why exactly do political figures feel the need to go on these types of programs and risk public ridicule?
Over the years, the content of late night programming has progressively become politically dominated. Due to our current media-obsessed environment, political strategy has drastically changed since the time that late night comedy appearances debuted. Talk show programs have become increasingly influential over political culture and the perceptions of the public.
Appearing on these types of programs is no longer just a suggestion, as an essential part of campaign strategy.
Bush’s presidency in particular drastically changed the politics of late night comedy. His eight years in office provided the material that comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert needed during their climb to fame. The Republican-dominated federal government provided a cast of characters that were exactly the kind of subject matter the liberal comedians needed to rise to national stardom.
By 2008, when Barack Obama was seeking presidency, Stewart and Colbert had become the necessary stops for any candidate. The comedians have been recognized as essential sources for young voters to get their news. President Obama fully grasped this notion, which allowed him to reach young voters by targeting them through social media and regular appearances on late night programs like, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”
He has additionally made multiple appearances on, “The Late Show with David Letterman” and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” (as well as others).
Yet the question remains—Is this new genre of political entertainment a vital resource for political knowledge or is it nothing more than a distraction from the actual issues at hand?
Politicians appearing on comedy programming is politically essential. Having so many media outlets to choose from, it’s become easy for people to tune out political news. The reality is, the majority of people prefer entertainment programming over any other.
Through appearances on comedy programs, politicians are able to access audiences that they might not otherwise be able to reach. Not only does it allow them to appear more human and relatable to the average citizen, it also demonstrates that they have a sense of humor.
The current 2016 presidential candidates are no different from their predecessors as they carry on the late night comedy tradition. Hillary Clinton recently had a brief appearance on an “SNL” sketch where she played “Val the Bartender.” The sketch lightheartedly pokes fun at Clinton’s postponed support of gay marriage, allowing viewers to feel that even Clinton herself is baffled by her former opposing viewpoint.
As if he doesn’t have enough publicity already, candidate Donald Trump also recently took on the “SNL” stage to prove that he could “take a joke.” Though, unlike his opponent who only played in one sketch, Trump performed as the show’s host— a time-consuming position political candidates very rarely assume.
With a candidate who is already so controversial and accustomed to the spotlight, the episode was guaranteed to bring in ratings. Although Trump accomplished in that aspect, the episode itself fell short of expectations, as Trump took a rather backseat role for much of the show. The episode turned out to be somewhat forgettable as jokes fell flat and Trump played it safe, avoiding any controversial acts.
Whether their appearance falls flat or they comes out superior, it’s better to have at least participated in late night comedy than not at all. At the end of the day, no matter what the outcome of the program is, the fact is that talk shows provide publicity. As they say “the only bad publicity is no publicity”— look at Donald Trump.
From “SNL” to “The Tonight Show” to the “Late Show,” it seems the only decision politicians are forced to make is not whether or not they will appear on a late night comedy program, but simply which one it will be. Despite controversial opinions on the subject, appearing on these types of programs have become political campaign necessities.
Politicians are then left with just two options— either they jump on this new phenomena bandwagon or they get lost in the dust as their opponents steal the spotlight.