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Commentary: Don’t cringe at politicians doing late-night TV. In a crisis, it’s reassuringly normal

Saturday Night Live - Season 45
Sen. Elizabeth Warren as herself and Kate McKinnon as Sen. Elizabeth Warren on “Saturday Night Live.”
(Will Heath / NBC)

On Thursday night, somehow not even two weeks after dropping out of the Democratic primary, Pete Buttigieg played the role of guest host on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” An already unusual situation — a politician subbing for a comedian — felt downright weird for one reason: Buttigieg delivered his monologue to a nearly empty studio, a precautionary measure taken by the show to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Jokes were followed not by laughter from a live audience, but inserted footage of famous people cheering and clapping.

“When you don’t have a real audience, you have to fake one. Just like Trump’s inauguration,” said the former mayor of South Bend. Ind., who urged viewers to call their representatives in Congress and push for free coronavirus testing and paid sick leave.

Buttigieg’s appearance capped off a deeply surreal week in American life, in which he was not the only presidential aspirant to play the role of entertainer.

It began when Hillary Clinton, making the rounds for her Hulu docuseries, did shots with Andy Cohen. Then Sen. Elizabeth Warren made a cameo on “Saturday Night Live” and shimmied with her onscreen doppelgänger Kate McKinnon in a TikTok that went viral days after she ended her presidential campaign — a bittersweet moment of levity for her disappointed supporters.

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Then, on Wednesday Sen. Bernie Sanders visited “The Tonight Show,” where he made the case for Medicare for all during a public health crisis and, despite a well-known aversion to small talk, chatted about his grandkids with Jimmy Fallon. On the same night, former vice presidential contender Sarah Palin, dressed like an acid-tripping Care Bear, rapped “Baby Got Back” on Fox reality show “The Masked Singer.

At a time when having a reality TV star as president no longer seems amusing to millions of Americans, many politicians still appear eager to mug for the cameras — too eager, for some observers.

Ardent Sanders supporters were up in arms that Warren visited “SNL” when she hadn’t yet endorsed the Vermont independent — as if, by having some fun after a long and arduous campaign, she were betraying the progressive cause. They even lashed out at Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, one of Sanders’ most enthusiastic boosters, because she praised the TikTok as “legendary.”

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A Daily Beast writer deemed Warren’s and Buttigieg’s late-night gigs “cringeworthy” and exceedingly self-promotional for candidates who have dropped out of the race, while ignoring Sanders’ visit to “Tonight” at a moment when his chance of winning the nomination has all but vanished.

On social media Wednesday night, many saw Palin’s rendition of the novelty ’90s hit as a portent of doom on a day that already seemed like heavy-handed dystopian satire. (Seriously? Tom Hanks has the virus? What hack is writing this?) It led directly into nationally televised remarks by President Trump about the coronavirus, an address so badly bungled it required the White House to issue immediate clarifications and sent the stock market into freefall. (The president was caught on C-SPAN’s feed letting loose with an uncertain “Okayyyyy,” as if he’d failed to convince even himself with the speech.)

Yes, Palin’s performance on “The Masked Singer” was a humiliating spectacle, even for someone who long ago embraced the role of reality TV sideshow. And Trump’s unlikely ascent to the White House undoubtedly received a boost from his late-night TV appearances. In 2015 he became the first actively campaigning presidential candidate to host “SNL”; a year later, in the heat of the general election, came the hair tousle heard ’round the world on “The Tonight Show.”

Pete Buttigieg hosts “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
Pete Buttigieg hosts “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
(Randy Holmes / ABC)

But long before Trump, there was already a tradition of politicians going on TV, particularly late-night comedy shows, to speak to the public and prove they have a sense of humor — even, and maybe especially, in times of upheaval.

John F. Kennedy became the first presidential candidate to visit a late-night show when he sat down with Jack Paar on “Tonight” in 1960. But eight years later, the guy who lost to him, Richard Nixon, pioneered the political cameo on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” the countercultural comedy show where Lorne Michaels got his start.

At a moment of violent political and social unrest that had spilled into the presidential election, the candidate of the “Silent Majority” tried to reach out to younger viewers by awkwardly delivering the tagline, “Sock it to me?” Two months later, he was elected president.

A very different kind of politician, Bill Clinton, won the hearts of many a baby boomer in 1992 when he played the saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show” — a hipper, more diverse alternative to Johnny Carson and “The Tonight Show.”

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Almost since its debut in 1975, “Saturday Night Live” has been a regular pit stop for politicians. In 1976, an election year in which he faced an uphill battle in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Gerald Ford delivered the show’s famous opening line — “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night” — in an episode hosted by his press secretary, Ron Nessen. Rudy Giuliani hosted the show while mayor of New York and appeared in the moving cold open of the first episode broadcast after 9/11.

But few politicians have been as pop culturally savvy as President Barack Obama. In 2009, he became the first sitting president to visit a late-night talk show when he stopped by “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” Over two terms in office he reached out well beyond traditional presidential forums like “60 Minutes” or “Meet the Press”: In addition to sitting with virtually every late-night host, he prompted much pearl-clutching by visiting supposedly “undignified” venues like the mock talk show “Between Two Ferns” and the podcast “WTF With Marc Maron.” Largely thanks to Obama, late-night TV has become a campaign stop as routine as the Iowa State Fair, and politicians from Mitt Romney to Bernie Sanders have slow-jammed the news.

Obama used the medium to show off his comedy chops, but he also knew when to play it straight: After the 2016 election, he shared a sobering discussion about the legacy of racism on “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah.”

Since leaving the White House in 2017, the Obamas have arguably been more active in pop culture than in politics. They started a production company, Higher Ground, and signed a deal with Netflix that has already resulted in an Academy Award-winning documentary, “American Factory.” Obama has yet to endorse anyone in the Democratic primary, but he has plugged his favorite movies, books and music of the year in annual best-of lists.

Obama’s apparent transition from visionary politician to just another content creator has disappointed some. But the Obamas have always understood that pop culture — even silly late-night comedy shows — can be a uniquely powerful tool for political messages.

Even Warren, a candidate praised for her grasp of complex issues and substantive policy proposals — for always having a plan for that — was a TV star of sorts before she ran for office. She first rose to national attention in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis as a favorite guest on “The Daily Show,” where she wowed Jon Stewart with her informative, impassioned exhortations on the Wall Street bailout.

Warren, then a Harvard Law professor specializing in bankruptcy, was so nervous she threw up backstage before her first appearance on the influential program. Three years later, she was elected to the Senate.

As she wrote in a 2015 Facebook post, late-night TV gave her a visibility that proved useful in politics. “I’m grateful for every single time someone has come up to me and asked: ‘Hey, aren’t you that lady I saw on Jon Stewart?’”

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