There was a time not so long ago when it would have been inconceivable for a sitting president to visit any late-night talk show, much less one on basic cable. But President Obama did just that Tuesday night — for the third time as chief executive — to bid farewell to Jon Stewart, who leaves “The Daily Show” next month.
In their years on the air, Stewart and his peers David Letterman, Jay Leno and Stephen Colbert have mined the campaign trail for countless punchlines and transformed late-night comedy into a critical arbiter in the political conversation. In stark contrast to the Johnny Carson era, it is now routine for D.C. players to appear in the guest chair.
But a mere six months before the first vote is cast in Iowa, late night is in the midst of a massive transition of power. The incoming generation of hosts is generally less political than the one it is replacing, a shift that could have repercussions far beyond the office water cooler.
Late-night shows act as both a “thermometer” and a “thermostat,” said Jon Macks, a Democratic campaign consultant who also spent 22 years writing jokes about politicians on both sides of the aisle on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” “They’re taking the temperature of the public, but … they can also reset things a bit.”
Indeed, a 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that more Americans turned to “Saturday Night Live,” “The Daily Show” and “The Tonight Show” than to national newspapers for campaign news.
That’s why political operatives from both parties have long kept a weather eye on late-night TV. Lee Atwater, President George H.W. Bush’s famously shrewd 1988 campaign manager, checked in with Carson’s monologues to see how the candidates were faring with ordinary Americans. In 2000, Al Gore’s advisors referred to Darrell Hammond’s impression of him on “Saturday Night Live” to make him aware of how humorless and wooden he seemed to many voters.
“Late-night humor has become a part of campaign discourse,” said S. Robert Lichter, a professor at George Mason University who has studied late-night humor and politics. “It’s not just the news politicians have to worry about, it’s the jokes.”
That adds significance to the generational handover that began last year, when Jay Leno stepped down as host of NBC’s “Tonight Show.” A political junkie, Leno used his Average Joe perspective to make light of D.C. dysfunction, solidifying his ratings lead over Letterman in the Monica Lewinsky era.
His bipartisan sensibility — an exception to the rule in left-leaning late night, according to research by Lichter — made him a favorite of Republicans. Indeed, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger used the “Tonight Show” to announce he would seek the Republican nomination for governor of California in 2003.
“If Leno poked fun of something, it got our attention as Republicans because he’s so incredibly fair-minded,” said Nicolle Wallace, co-host of “The View” and a campaign advisor for McCain and George W. Bush. “From where I sat on the ideological spectrum, he was incredibly important.”
Not so much his rival Letterman, who on CBS’ “Late Show” was a scathing critic of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney — and relentlessly ridiculed Republican candidate John McCain for canceling an appearance on his show during the 2008 financial crisis.
Leno was succeeded by Jimmy Fallon, who so far seems reluctant to allow partisan rancor to spoil the fun-house atmosphere of his show. His emphasis on games and musical parodies means fewer punch lines drawn from the headlines.
Lichter found that, while at “Late Night,” Fallon had about half as many political jokes as Letterman or Leno — a trend that appears to have continued since he moved to “Tonight” last year. As an interviewer, he seems averse to confrontation. Perhaps the most controversial subject to come up in his recent conversation with Jeb Bush was the use of peas in guacamole (Fallon is for; Bush against).
This September, two more big changes are in the offing that could reduce the Beltway chatter in late night.
On Sept. 8, Colbert will leave behind his highly political “Colbert Report” persona to take over for Letterman.
At Comedy Central, Colbert engineered a new form of participatory satire with his Bill O’Reilly-esque character, running for president twice, forming a super-PAC to educate viewers about the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and even testifying on Capitol Hill — in character, naturally — about migrant workers.
“Colbert’s the most overtly political talk-show host,” Lichter said, “and he’s walking into a show that is the most different from what he’s done before.”
Based on a spoof of GOP candidate Donald Trump that Colbert released online in June, his appetite for political satire appears to remain strong, but simply by virtue of hosting an hourlong network show, he’ll probably have to diversify.
Then on Sept. 28, Trevor Noah, a relatively unknown comic from South Africa whose stand-up draws from his experiences as a mixed-race child raised during apartheid, picks up the mantle of “The Daily Show” from Stewart. He will bring a unique take on race and cultural identity, if not an exhaustive understanding of American electoral politics, to the job.
When Stewart took over from Craig Kilborn in 1999, few could have predicted the host of the short-lived “Jon Stewart Show,” would make “The Daily Show” essential election-year viewing. And perhaps even fewer might have guessed that he’d become “a thought leader for this generation,” said Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and once a frequent target of Stewart’s mockery.
Though Stewart has continually balked at the idea he is anything more than a comedian, as host of “The Daily Show,” he has gained such stature that the New York Times likened him to “modern-day equivalent of Edward R. Murrow.” In 2010, Stewart attracted a crowd of 200,000 to the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” on the National Mall in 2010.
Stewart’s absence is going to be felt acutely in 2016, particularly by those on the left who saw him as a galvanizing figure and helped many of his segments — including, most recently, his heartfelt lament over the church shootings in Charleston, S.C. — go viral.
“The truth is that the loss of the existing ‘Daily Show’ and ‘The Colbert Report’ has taken away a big, one-two politics-centric punch in late night,” said Frank Rich, a columnist for New York magazine and executive producer of the White House satire “Veep.” “No one else is as politically attuned as those two shows.”
Still, it’s not as if Stewart became a hugely influential figure overnight. Among late-night’s new class, there are already several worthy contenders for his throne.
On “Late Night,” Seth Meyers peppers his monologue with topical wisecracks influenced by his years as anchor of “Weekend Update” on “SNL.” He’s also turned the show into something of a political salon, with guests including Vice President Joe Biden and presidential contenders Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina and Bernie Sanders. Stewart protegee John Oliver has earned raves for his HBO show, “Last Week Tonight,” which specializes in deep-dive investigations of news topics.
Another open question is just how much candidates will be willing to visit late-night shows — something that Obama, to the dismay of his critics, did with unusual frequency. In March 2009, he became the first sitting president to go on a late-night program and has since visited nearly every couch on broadcast, cable and even online outlets like “Between Two Ferns.” By doing so, Obama has “expanded the reach of the bully pulpit,” said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile.
Late-night television provides an opportunity for buttoned-up candidates to show a “softer side” of themselves to a mass audience, said Steele. “One appearance on ‘The Tonight Show’ will reach more people than your biggest mass mailing. It is smart politics to sit in the chair for six or 10 minutes.”
Though Jeb Bush bravely slow-jammed the news with Fallon in his “Tonight Show” appearance in June, it’s unclear whether his image-conscious GOP rivals — or the famously controlled Hillary Rodham Clinton — will be as willing to yuk it up with late night’s less-established talents.
Noting that most politicians are pretty clueless when it comes to pop culture — “They have their aides to tell them what to put on their iPhones” — Rich predicts that 2016’s candidates will be even more wary. “The fact that there’s going to be a new cast of characters in late night, they’re not going to want to go on those shows.”
They are, however, certain to provide plenty of fodder — especially Trump, whose campaign has already been such a comedy gold mine that Letterman was lured out of retirement to deliver a Trump-themed Top 10 list in a surprise appearance this month. (“I have made the biggest mistake of my life,” he said of leaving “Late Show” before the real-estate tycoon entered the race.)
“Here’s the bottom line,” said Macks, “there’s not going to be a shortage of material.”