Don’t Quit Your Day Job: 2016 Candidates Flex Funnybones On Late-Night Television

Oh, a comedian, eh? Well, not quite. But the 2016 candidates are trying to score points with voters by appearing on late-night talk shows. They seem to be aware that this is not safe territory; not a stacked town hall or rally. Whether it’s The Tonight Show, Late Night, The Late Show or others, candidates seem to be willing to go along in the spirit of the show. Sometimes they even try to be funny. Sometimes they actually manage it.

The first political guest Stephen Colbert had on his new Late Show incarnation was Jeb Bush. On Sept. 8th, 2015, Colbert welcomed Bush to his stage. When Colbert asked about the use of “Jeb!” for his campaign, Bush noted that the exclamation point “connotes excitement” (an unintentional joke, to be sure). Later in the interview, which was very low-key, Colbert asked how Jeb differs from his ex-President sibling. “Well, I’m obviously younger, much better looking,”he quipped. Point, Jeb!. Pretty much the only point, though.

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Bernie Sanders, Democratic contender, appeared on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore on Sept. 21st. In The Soul-Food Sit-Down segment, Wilmore joked with Sanders, who showed that he does have a sense of humor. Prompted by Wilmore, Sanders told viewers that his “plans for criminal justice reform are unfleek.” “That is it. I’m on my way now,” he joked. When Wilmore asked what Donald Trump has that other candidates don’t, Sanders deadpanned, “Five billion bucks.” He then good-naturedly accepted a red, white and blue hat with the slogan, “Black-eyed Peas Matter.” Not the band, mind you — actual black-eyed peas.

Appearing on the Sept. 21st edition of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Ted Cruz looked comfortable at the start of the interview (pre-Reagan talk). Colbert asked if Cruz knew that the GOP field would be so crowded, Cruz responded, “I did. They all let me know beforehand.” He then added that there “are another dozen coming.” Showing a rare streak of honesty, Cruz said that “every waking minute” of running for President consists of “asking people for money. You walk up to total strangers, ‘Hi, how ya doing? Can I have money?’ That’s a lovely tie. Please give me money.'” Now, that’s actually funny.

Carly Fiorina was on Late Night with Seth Myers back in May. Myers brought up the fact that she had failed to register before she declared her candidacy. He pointed out that the domain name had been bought by ex-HP employees. Oops. Fiorina laughed about it and informed the host that she had just bought the domain name so, “you better be nice to me.” She noted that it had been “really cheap,” which brought a huge laugh.

On The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Fiorina sang a song about her dog. Her lazy dog, Snickers. It was pretty cute, really, and she received a big round of applause. She comes off well in a talk show setting. That doesn’t excuse the bald-faced lying elsewhere, though.

Chris Christie has shown that he can laugh at himself, famously eating a doughnut on The Late Show with David Letterman in February of 2013. When he appeared with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show August 31st, he demanded that they lip synch. He did and was awarded a medal, which he joked was his “first-first place.” Joking about Fallon’s wife flagging him down at a New Hampshire 4th of July event, Christie admitted that he didn’t know which Jimmy she was referring to when she explained that she was “Jimmy’s wife.” When Fallon jokingly asked how many Jimmys did he know, Christie replied, “I’m from New Jersey, ya know how many Jimmys I know?” Christie is perhaps the funniest of the candidates. He has a natural humor and good delivery. He’d make a better comedian than politician.

On Sept. 16th, Hillary Clinton appeared with Fallon and poked a lot of fun at Donald Trump. To be fair, that’s low-hanging fruit. She and Fallon did a skit of a telephone call between “Trump” (Fallon, of course) and Clinton. It was a silly way to allow her to talk about what she has done and will do. Later, talk turned to Trump’s hair, Clinton asking if Fallon had ever touched Trump’s hair. She then imitated Trump’s campaign stump speech style. The appearance seems to have been an attempt to bring her more in touch with voters. Time will tell if it helped.

Donald Trump has been a fixture on talk shows for what seems like decades. He has appeared on every major late night show, mostly to sell his brand.With his official announcement for president, he’s been somewhat less obvious. On Sept. 11th, he appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. The pair did a skit of Trump interviewing himself in the mirror. Because the only person qualified to interview the Donald is the Donald. “Me interviewing me… that’s what I call a great idea,” Trump quipped. The skit was, like the Clinton one, a way to let the candidate repeat campaign talking points. In the sit-down segment, though Trump joked back and forth with Fallon, it all boiled down to the usual self-aggrandizing.

Eleven days later, Trump went on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Speaking for all the late night hosts, Colbert thanked Trump for running for president and delivering every night on material for him, which Trump took as a compliment. Trump’s demeanor with Colbert — as with Fallon — was genial. But, while he laughed at Colbert’s biting comments, Trump came across as egotistical.

We will no doubt be seeing a lot more of the 2016 candidates on late night shows over the next 14 months or so. Some will be entertaining (perhaps unintentionally) but I expect most will be repeating campaign talking points, just in a more casual atmosphere. It’s up to the hosts to burst that bubble of pomposity. Thankfully, they seem to be up to the task.

Photo Credit: Screen Capture from CBS video

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