The Politics Of Late-Night TV

The couches of late night TV shows have become the new must do on the campaign trail for a presidential candidate. Weekends on All Things Considered guest host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's political junkie Ken Rudin about how getting a laugh on Leno or Letterman could help a candidate's image.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Back to domestic politics now. The suspension of Herman Cain's campaign may deprive late-night hosts of their best punch lines, but they'll still have plenty of presidential hopefuls to keep them company. It's become an unwritten rule of the road in presidential campaigns, the proverbial grilling by the kings of late night.

Back in 2008, David Letterman was stood up by then presidential candidate Senator John McCain for an interview. And Letterman got all fired up because he knew the power of his couch.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

DAVID LETTERMAN: First of all, the road to the White House runs right through me.

MARTIN: Presidential candidates made over 100 appearances on late-night TV last election season, up from just a meager 25 in 2004. With the Iowa caucuses just weeks away now, Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry have already made rounds on late-night TV. So, why is it so important for presidential candidates to visit "The Tonight Show" or "The Daily Show" while on the campaign trail?

With me to answer this pressing question is NPR's Ken Rudin. He is the political editor for NPR, also the author of NPR's Political Junkie column. Hi, Ken.

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So I want to start out with a clip from a show I recently saw last week. This is Michele Bachmann on "Jimmy Fallon." Here, she's playing this word association game with Fallon. And in this challenge, Jimmy Fallon says Perry, as in Rick Perry, and Bachmann has to say the first word that comes into her mind. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON")

MICHELE BACHMANN: That's not one word. I've got to do three. Governor, Texas, can't remember the third.

(Laughter)

MARTIN: This is timely. This was coming off the heels of Rick Perry's kind of flub. Why do presidential candidates feel they need to go on late-night TV at all?

RUDIN: Well, first of all, I think more people get their news from Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers and Jon Stewart than they do from Brian Williams and regular network TVs. Second of all, candidates do not campaign the way they used to. They're not on the ground in Iowa, New Hampshire. They are doing debates. They are doing Fox News, and they are doing late night TV. And third of all, is that it helps soften your image.

When Rick Perry couldn't think of the third department that he would cut, the famous oops, brain freeze moment, you go on TV, forget about the mistakes, you forget about the gaffe. You show that you're human. And for some people, it works. But does it give you a boost in the polls, perhaps not.

MARTIN: And this has been happening for a while. I mean, it's the temptation to say this is all modern thing. But Richard Nixon went on "Laugh-In" - I mean, a long time ago.

RUDIN: The buzzword at "Laugh-In" in 1968 was "sock it to me," and they would always have these other celebrities go on. The thought of Richard Nixon going on and saying...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ROWAN & MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN")

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: Sock it to me?

RUDIN: That was so bizarre because Richard Nixon wouldn't do that. Remember, he's not a relaxed kind of guy. Richard Nixon doing "sock it to me" on "Laugh-In" back then was a big thing. When Bill Clinton played the saxophone, and that was 19 years ago, I remember people saying, this is unspeakable. I mean, this is unprofessional.

MARTIN: Yeah.

RUDIN: And yet that's the way to do it because there are a lot of people who pay attention, as I said, to late-night TV and these hip shows rather than "Meet the Press" and "Face the Nation," things like that.

MARTIN: Have these appearances really become inculcated into a political strategy?

RUDIN: They have. We haven't even voted yet. We've talked about...

MARTIN: Oh, yeah.

RUDIN: We've talked about these candidates for nine, 10 months already, and the first vote doesn't come until January 3rd in Iowa. But until then, if you're not the focus of a debate strategy, if you're a Jon Huntsman and you get very few questions, why not go on "Saturday Night Live?" If you're Michele Bachmann, who seems to be forgotten by most pundits, why not go on these shows and make jokes? Will it help you? No. Will it keep you in the spotlight? Yes. And that's what the name of the game is.

MARTIN: Ken Rudin writes the weekly Political Junkie column. It can be found at npr.org/junkie. Ken, thanks so much.

RUDIN: Thanks, Rachel.

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