Campaign comedy: The slow-jam strategy
Can you picture Jimmy Carter or George Bush standing by while a late-night comic calls him the Preezy of the United Steezy?
OK, so no president has ever slow-jammed the news like Barack Obama did Tuesday on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." Can you picture Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush (or Mitt Romney, for that matter) standing by while a late-night comic calls him "the Preezy of the United Steezy" or bestows a nickname like "the Barack Ness Monster" – all in pursuit of cool points and the youth vote?
Then again, presidents like Abe Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt probably could have put on some pretty spectacular slow-jams of their own, without help from TV writers or White House staff. And while Obama is the first sitting president to appear on late-night talk shows, those appearances are just an extension of long-standing political strategy making use of such "free media" appearances to get out a message or just flash some pre-scripted personality. Obama didn't slow-jam the news as much as he slow-jammed his campaign's talking points of the day about student-loan interest rates. Turns out, a comfy armchair on a television studio set serves nicely as a campaign podium or bully pulpit.
Richard Nixon famously got the campaign comedy rolling with his 1968 appearance on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," his four-second cameo delivery of the show's running gag line, "Sock it to me," helping him on the way to the White House. But the ties between politics and television comedy have only gotten stronger over the years, as "Laugh-In" gave way to "Saturday Night Live" and the television universe became more and more fragmented with the rise of cable. The ratings for Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" now far outpace those for CNN's primetime lineup and have topped the average primetime viewership for the Fox News Channel at times.
In a new interview with Rolling Stone, Obama himself points out the appeal of shows like Stewart's. "I like 'The Daily Show,' so sometimes if I'm home late at night, I'll catch snippets of that. I think Jon Stewart's brilliant," Obama tells the magazine's Jann Wenner. "It's amazing to me the degree to which he's able to cut through a bunch of nonsense – for young people in particular, where I think he ends up having more credibility than a lot of more conventional news programs do." (Stewart, coincidentally, joked on Wednesday's "The Daily Show" about Obama's slow-jam the previous night: "Mr. President, you're the president," Stewart said. "You don't have to do this shit anymore.")
So late-night shows have become almost as much a part of the campaign circuit as Iowa and New Hampshire. "The road to the White House apparently leads through Burbank," the Los Angeles Times noted in 2000, as candidate after candidate stopped by "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." David Letterman has also joked that the road to the White House runs through him – and he waged a punishing campaign of his own against John McCain in 2008 after the GOP candidate canceled a planned "Late Show" appearance. McCain ultimately made it on the show just weeks before Election Day. "I screwed up," the Arizona senator told Letterman, more than once.
As harsh as Letterman was on McCain, though, the late-night shows generally offer a much more friendly environment for the pols. The comics may joke about them every night, but when candidates actually show up, the dynamic changes. As Elizabeth Kolbert noted in The New Yorker back in 2004: "In the new comic order, the most devastating joke is circulated not by an irreverent observer or a sly opponent but by the target himself, who appears on national television solely in order to deliver it. There seem to be two ways to look at this trend: as a sign of how seriously we now take light entertainment or as an indication of how lightly we have come to regard politics."
The explosion of social media has only continued the trend. In an age when Tumblr posts can give viral life to photos of a Blackberry-wielding Secretary of State, scoring pop culture points goes far beyond a few minutes on midnight television. The White House today posted the video of Obama's appearance on its blog and emailed the link out with the subject line lifted from the slow jam: "Awwww Yeah": President Obama on Jimmy Fallon. About 2 million viewers watched Obama on the show, but less than two days later, the YouTube video of Obama's slow-jam has already gotten 2.1 million views.
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