Obama’s ‘Tonight Show’ appearance could become a ‘special’ event

television critic

Even in the annals of media, President Obama’s appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on Thursday night isn’t likely to be remembered as a watershed moment.

And in the short run -- well, a run whose distance is yet impossible to measure -- it is liable to be most newsworthy for a remark made in a clumsy attempt at humor. More on that later.

Obama went on the show for the same reason that other famous people do -- to promote his latest project -- and for the same reason that other famous people do: to clear up “A Few Misconceptions About Some Horrible Things You May Have Heard” before a large national audience, predisposed by habit to already be in a good mood. Whether or not you think Leno is funny, “The Tonight Show” is the Great American Talk Show, which makes him a kind of president of the United States himself.


The host was clearly a happy man. “I hope my old social studies teacher is watching,” Leno said.

Not surprisingly, the opening monologue went light on the evening’s guest: Obama’s entourage was “still less people than when we have Mariah Carey on.”

And when the president stood next to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at an event earlier in the day, he looked like “the head of a company introducing its latest cyborg model to the world.” Then Leno made some funny Arnold noises.

Obama, who walked onstage to a clattery “Hail to the Chief” and wore a blue jacket, red tie and white shirt with matching flag pin, arrived with jokes of his own: “I do think in Washington it’s a little bit like ‘American Idol,’ except everybody is Simon Cowell.”

His segment followed the usual arc of celebrity talk show appearances: the funny thing that happened on the way to the show (the Secret Service not wanting him to walk); promoting the project; and some funny personal stuff.

The interview was not meant to be as penetrating as it was expository, although -- as Leno stood in for the aggrieved everyman -- it was not without sharp corners. Given the AIG fiasco, the president had to spend more time explaining the disaster than selling the stimulus.


He stood up for Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and said how “stunned” he was by the bonus payouts -- though this sounded a little like Claude Rains claiming to be “shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.”

He revealed that “the dirty little secret” of the economic meltdown is “that most of the stuff that got us into trouble is perfectly legal,” and proposed preventive remedies. He came off, as he usually does, cool, collected and fundamentally optimistic.

Then came the personal stuff. And it was in this more relaxed segment of the evening that Obama -- proudly claiming to have bowled 129 on the White House lanes -- made his one truly unfortunate remark.

“That’s very good, Mr. President,” Leno said.

“It’s like the Special Olympics or something,” the president replied.

Now this is the sort of remark that, sadly, has become commonplace in contemporary humor. But it’s nothing you’d want your president to say, or even to think.

Politics may make room for the occasional actor, but it’s best to leave comedy to the professionals.