From Johnny to Jimmy: The History of Politics in Late Night TV

Last Friday, CNN’s Anderson Cooper aired a segment about late night comedy coverage in the presidential election titled “2016: The Year Late Night Picked a Side.” It is a supercut of Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, John Oliver and Samantha Bee skewering Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on each of their respective shows.  

On October 10th, CNN’s Jake Tapper interviewed NBC Late Night’s Seth Meyers about how Donald Trump’s candidacy has shaped the comedy writing on his show. He indicates that his show would indeed have election jokes, but Trump’s candidacy lends itself to longer segments of jokes specifically about it.

It may seem that the 2016 election cycle is the first time that late-night network television has taken a more pointed, outspoken, and critical tone when making jokes at the expense of one particular presidential candidate. However, late night comedy has a rich history of taking inordinate jabs at candidates in the election season. The perfect case study on the political power of late night comedy is the demise of Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in the late 1980s.

Hart ran against Michael Dukakis in the Democratic Primary in 1987, and ultimately dropped out following the New Hampshire Primary. His campaign was embroiled in a scandal when Hart and a woman named Donna Rice were pictured on the cover of the New York Post, with an accompanying story about an alleged affair and a boat trip. Both denied the allegations, but late night comedians took aim at the ridiculous nature of the scandal.

On May 7th of that year, Orlando Sentinel’s television critic Greg Dawson opined: “Isn’t it reassuring to know that the identity of the next president of the United States could be decided in large part by Johnny Carson’s joke writers? It this a great democracy or what?”

Prior to Dawson publishing his opinion in the Sentinel, ABC News reporter Sam Donaldson said Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart’s campaign was on the verge of political wipeout “because everyone is laughing at him.”

Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show was one such late night show that was capitalizing the Hart scandal for laughs. Carson’s monologue included a joke about absurdity of the name of the boat Hart and Rice allegedly chartered, which was named “Monkey Business.”

While Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show took a more subtle approach to Hart’s candidacy, Fox’s Late Show Starring Joan Rivers was much more on the nose.

“I don’t believe for one second that he was fooling around,” Rivers said in her monologue. “He said he wanted the girl’s opinion on the issues and he was just feeling her out.”

Rivers asked the audience to vote by applause on the question of whether Hart had or had not fooled around with Donna Rice. The “had’s” far outnumbered the “had not’s.”

Late Night’s David Letterman also piled onto the dog pile with one of his iconic top 10 lists: “The 10 things that Hart and Rice might have been doing together over the weekend at his townhouse.” Number 10 was making Rice Krispies marshmallow squares. Number 7 was looking through catalogs for an anniversary gift for Lee Hart, the candidate’s wife.

On May 8th, Carson revisited the Hart-Rice scandal once more while he delivered his Tonight Show monologue that evening, saying: “Well, at least we know where all the presidential candidates are this weekend – Home with their wives.”

In a 2005 column for CNN, Judy Woodruff resurfaced the New York Times’ observations regarding Carson’s monologues about Hart. “Mr. Carson’s jokes about Mr. Hart’s extramarital activities were surely not the only reason his political fortunes evaporated in 1988, but they were repeated often enough to have played some part,” said the Times writers.

While Carson’s Tonight Show may have fueled the national debate that became the downfall of the Hart campaign, it is often referenced as the setting of the revitalization of former President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. After bungling his speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, the former President was able to charm his way through a Carson interview, and even played the saxophone on the show, as a means of recovering from the convention speech.

In today’s political pop culture, hosts of late night TV have been largely more critical of Trump than Clinton, even dedicating whole segments to critique the candidate. However, there is one interview that breaks the mold of the tough commentary:

In late September, Jimmy Fallon interviewed Trump on the Tonight Show and was heavily criticized for not being “tough enough” with him. Fallon now famously asked him if they could do something “not presidential since they’re both civilians” and proceeded to play with Trump’s hair.

Former Saturday Night Live co-star Tina Fey recently defended her friend, Fallon, saying:

“This election is so, so ugly, it’s not business as usual. I really felt for Jimmy when people were so angry. It’s not Jimmy who peed in that punch bowl, it’s not Jimmy who created this horrible world that we’re currently living in.”

While it’s evident that late night TV is very critical of Trump this election cycle, this is not the first time in history this has occurred. Comedy giants of the past, like Rivers, Carson and Letterman, paved the way for late night comedy to be creative and dynamic when writing and delivering political commentary.

With new faces making a splash in late night comedy like Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, and John Oliver, and mainstays like Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, and Stephen Colbert still managing to muster chuckles from the American public, the nation is exposed to more political comedy than ever before – and perhaps more political comedy with a hearty dose of political commentary as well.

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