JFK with Jack Paar on the Tonight Show, January 1, 1962

Late-Night TV’s Path to the Presidency

Trump and Clinton are both making the requisite rounds of talk shows, a tradition that’s a lot older than you think

For the last couple of election cycles, appearing on a late-night talk show (or two) has effectively been a requirement. This opportunity for politicians to humanize themselves — whether it’s Dubya reading a personalized top-10 list on Letterman or Mitt Romney slow-jamming the news with Fallon — can make or break the public’s perception of said candidate. Ask Hillary Clinton: By all accounts, the former secretary of state personally requested to appear on Between Two Ferns, proving once and for all to naysayers that yes, not only can she take a joke, she can also hold her own against a seasoned lunatic (a point she enthusiastically hammered home last night).

Obama, of course, has become the undisputed king of these kinds of appearances, but it’s Bill Clinton who’s often given credit for kickstarting the tradition with his legendary sax performance on The Arsenio Hall Show. But that’s revisionist history. American presidents and presidential candidates have been doing guest spots on late-night TV since the advent of, well, late-night TV.

Candidate: John F. Kennedy
The Show: Tonight Starring Jack Paar
Best Line: Despite his legacy of easy charm, Kennedy only goes for one joke in the entire interview. A visibly nervous Paar asks for an amusing anecdote from the campaign trail, and after an awkward pause, is rewarded with this bizarre response: “I was made an honorary Indian, and now I cheer for our side on TV.” The studio audience laughs, at least.

The Takeaway: It’s well-known that those who watched the Nixon/Kennedy debate on television believed Kennedy to be the winner, while those who listened on the radio favored Nixon. Whatever extra charm Kennedy was able to show the cameras at that debate was thoroughly absent in this crushingly dull performance just three months earlier, described by New York Times writer Frank Rich as little more than “fat paragraphs of well-practiced stump boilerplate.”


Candidate: Richard Nixon
The Show: Tonight Starring Jack Paar
Best Line: After agreeing to play the piano on the show — an original composition, no less — Nixon quips, “You asked a moment ago whether I had any future political plans to run for anything. If last November didn’t finish it, this will, because believe me, the Republicans don’t want another piano player in the White House.” This was in reference to Harry Truman, who was famously incapable of passing a piano without sitting down to play.

The Takeaway: This was a rare softening moment for Nixon: Playing down a recent defeat, joking about his future election chances and drawing not just laughter but a round of applause from the audience with his gag. For a guy remembered more as a sweating, growling monster than a man, his appearance here is downright charming. Despite this — and despite his musical performance predating Clinton’s sax solo by almost 30 years — when it comes to TV comedy, he’s still better remembered for his five-second cameo on Laugh In.

Candidate: Ronald Reagan
The Show: The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson
Best Line: While this is less an interview than an eight-minute political ad, Reagan nevertheless brings some folksy humor to his sloganeering. When the subject of tax cuts inevitably raises its head, he quips, “We live in the only country in the world where it takes more brains to figure out your income taxes than it does to earn the income.”

The Takeaway: Those outraged by Jimmy Fallon’s wishy-washy interview of Donald Trump may find some solace in knowing such softball antics have a strong precedent. Despite being a lifelong liberal, Carson sets up his pal Reagan for soundbite after soundbite, never challenging his answers or asking anything that Ronnie hasn’t clearly prepared for. At least Fallon ruffled Trump’s toupée.

Watch Ford on the Phone from Saturday Night Live on NBC.com

President: Gerald Ford
The Show: Saturday Night Live
Best Line: Amidst a barrage of goofy gags and slapstick, the standout moment sees Ford, in attempting to answer the phone, pour a glass of water into his own ear, exclaiming, “Y’ello? Hello? I can’t hear you. What, are you in the pool?” (Eagle-eyed readers may notice, after careful examination, that this is not actually Gerald Ford.)

The Takeaway: Again, no, this is not Ford. But this skit (along with several others throughout Chevy Chase’s one season on the show) drew enough attention for Ford’s press secretary, Ron Nessen, to agree to host an episode of SNL in April 1976 — the first political figure to do so. The real kicker was a pre-taped segment featuring Ford himself uttering the immortal words, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

Candidate: Bill Clinton
The Show: The Arsenio Hall Show
Best Line: Clinton’s saxophone rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” — a possible message of false sympathy for Jerry Brown, whom Clinton had defeated in the California Democratic presidential primary just the day before — is his best-remembered moment from the show. But he got some laughs, too — or rather, Hall’s drummer did. “You know what your drummer said?” laughs Clinton as the interview begins. “He said, ‘If this music thing doesn’t work out, you can always run for president.”

The Takeaway: This performance quickly became a cultural touchstone, with Clinton becoming the first would-be president to harness the “cool” factor of late night. The moment was referenced and parodied so much that even elementary school kids knew about it. Were it not for a certain intern, this might have been the best remembered moment of Clinton’s political career.