Handicapping the Talk-Show Primary

Every candidate's path to the Oval Office leads past of the desk of Colbert, Fallon, and their brethren. Which hosts work best?
Photographer: Andrew Harrer-Pool

There are currently more people running for president than there are American late-night talk show hosts...but it is close. And getting closer. When Samantha Bee (TBS in January) and Chelsea Handler (Netflix, later in 2016) get their shows, there will be 14 humans with late-night talk shows in this country. (Fifteen if you count Ellen DeGeneres’ show, which is technically on during the day.)

That’s a lot of hosts, and lot of guests are needed to fill the time. With a presidential race in full swing, every candidate, even Lincoln Chafee, should have ample opportunity to get a national audience for a 10-minute interview chucklefest. In the last week alone, we’ve seen Chris Christie on Trevor Noah and Hillary Clinton on SNL. Stephen Colbert has had a surprising number of political guests on his new show: Jeb Bush, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, Michelle Obama, John Kerry, Bill Clinton, John McCain, and Run the Jewels (if Killer Mike decides to run).

Each show, of course, presents different risks and rewards, different opportunities to make a case to the American people—or just to prove that a candidate is not entirely without a sense of humor, no matter how it may appear on the campaign trail. As a service to the big(ish)-name contenders currently running for president, here’s a guide to what to expect when you sit down at the desk of the talk show hosts who've shown an interest in politics.

Stephen Colbert

Colbert has doubled and tripled down on politics on the Late Show, having not just more presidential candidates, from both sides of the aisle, but various figures from the world of economics, technology and media. What has distinguished Colbert’s show so far isn’t just the seriousness and intelligence of conversation: It is Colbert’s cordial nature, a grace and civility that is rarely seen in show business, let alone politics. (He was nicer to Cruz, without question, than anyone in the mainstream media has ever been.) It’s a radical new way to do a talk show, and is has been thrilling to watch so far. There are pitfalls for candidates, though, no question: You will need to prepare as diligently for Colbert’s show as you will to do Face the Nation. Advice: Know the score going in. You’re going to have to bring your A game. But if it works, it can soar. Cruz has never been more likable and relatable than he was on Colbert’s show, because he took the host’s cue and talked to him like a real, live person.

Jimmy Fallon

Fallon’s show is the most popular of all the late-night shows, but it also might be the emptiest: As I’ve joked before, Fallon is turning into Jay Leno before our very eyes. Fallon’s a skilled mimic, and that’s his one trick; it’s the one he uses with every political guest, no matter how pointless it might be. Fallon doesn’t see his job as to enlighten or reach any deeper truth: He just wants silly viral clips. This is the last show any candidate ever has to worry about any gotcha questions on. Frankly, because it’s Fallon, there are barely any questions at all. Advice: Just play along with him: He’s just here to make you look good, not to challenge you at all. If you can get over the indignity of having to withstand such inanity in order to win the highest office in all the land, the audience share and the online buzz is more than worth it. This is the easiest show for you to do well on, which is probably why it’s the most powerful.

Jimmy Kimmel

Definitely the most gimmicky of the top-tier late-night hosts—there isn’t much Kimmel likes more than finding a joke and riding it into the ground—but with a slightly harder edge than Fallon (though being softer than Fallon might be impossible), Kimmel has found a niche with celebrities by allowing them to feel like members of the special celebrity club that separates them from you, me and the rest of the unwashed masses. Never is this more clear than in the Celebrities Read Mean Tweets About Themselves segment, which President Barack Obama took part in above. This is the ideal segment for a politician: Make yourself look above criticism by publicly acknowledging that criticism. (NBC actually stole this idea for the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner a few years ago). This is so ideally suited for Clinton that it’s a failure on the campaign’s part that she hasn’t done one yet. Advice: Do the Mean Tweets segment.

Bill Maher

Maher may have more self-regard than any other talk show host on this list, and boy, that’s saying something. Thus, any guest, like Rick Santorum above, is wise to remember that going on with Maher won’t be a way to discuss the issues of the day with the American people: It’ll be a way to indulge whatever hobby horse Maher happens to be on that day. (And God forbid you have to stay on the air during one of his monologues; celebrities and political figures pretending to laugh at Bill Maher jokes is a meme waiting to happen.) Maher’s show is “political” only in that Maher is so self-serious that he believes his view has equal research and weight as yours, and you’re entirely at his whim. Santorum is near last place in the polls, and it still wasn’t worth it for him to do this. Advice: Don’t go on Bill Maher’s show.

Seth Meyers

Meyers hasn’t had many political guests on his show, but that has to be by design, because it’s really an ideal place for them. Meyers knows his politics, and the show has shown a willingness to tackle serious topics without dumbing them down, with a literary bent that is appealing. (There’s a segment in which the Late Night Players act out New Yorker cartoons.) This is an underrated talk show that rides the line well between commenting smartly on the news and being a political advocate, Jon Stewart-style. Of all the people on this list, the only ones I'd feel comfortable having as moderators of a debate are Meyers and Colbert. This is a sleeper opportunity for the right candidate. Advice: Try to talk Meyers into having more politician guests.

Trevor Noah

Noah isn’t just new to late-night television, he’s new to American politics, and so far, in the early days of his version of the Daily Show, it shows. Frankly, Christie—his lone presidential candidate guest so far—looked more comfortable with the late-night format than he did, which makes sense; he has more experience with it. Noah is still trying to get his feet wet and establish his own audience outside of the traditional liberal Daily Show one, much of which seems a little impatient with him so far. So don’t expect any hard-hitting Jon-Stewart-style confrontational questions. This is smoother sailing than you will think. Advice: Tell him he looks good in his suit and don’t worry him about catching you in any lies. He’s still new here.

Conan O’Brien

Conan hasn’t had a single politician guest—not one!—since O’Brien took his act to TBS in November 2010, so there’s little reason to start now. All told, the irrelevance that Conan now represents in both the late-night comedy world and the political world is more sad than anything else. As with everything else, blame Leno. Can you believe, by the way, that Conan—that kid from way back—is now the longest-running late-night talk-show host in the business? He’s been doing this for 22 years. That’s almost as long as Trevor Noah has been alive.

Larry Wilmore

Wilmore is naturally funny and unusually smart, one of the many reasons it’s so frustrating that his ratings for his Nightly Show have been so poor. (He’s down 30 percent from Colbert Report ratings.) This segment, where he goes out for soul food with Democratic candidate Chafee, is an excellent example of Wilmore’s strengths. He has some fun with Chafee’s quixotic campaign—there’s a great riff where Wilmore pretends to be Chafee’s son, yelling at him for wasting his inheritance by running for president—but there’s room for legitimate questions in there, including a key one about Clinton that foretold what troubles were lying ahead for the Democratic front-runner. If you’re a bottom-tier candidate like Chafee, you don’t have much to lose going on Wilmore’s show, and hey, you might actually have some fun. For the top-shelf candidates, though, sadly, there just might not be enough people watching to make it worth your while. Advice: Oh, heck, give it a shot, why not?

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