David Letterman, during a sometimes borderline contentious interview broadcast Friday, asked Herman Cain if he really wanted to be president.
"Dave, did you think I was doing this for fun?" Cain replied with a smile, apparently referring to his sitdown with the sharp-tongued late night host.
Cain's quip got some laughs, perhaps because it struck at the truth.
Sure, presidential candidates come to the trail these days knowing that displaying a sense of humor on late night comedy shows is part of the campaign game. But with recent appearances by Republican hopefuls Cain, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman and even one by President Obama, that aspect of the contest seems to be off to an early and unusually competitive start.
The flurry of activity suggests that over the next year late night TV could become a key battleground — if not for the hearts of the voters, then for their laughs.
We can credit or blame Richard Nixon, who famously played piano for Jack Paar on "The Tonight Show" in 1963 — an image-softening prelude to a comeback that culminated with him winning the presidency five years later. In September 2003, John Edwards announced his presidential campaign on "The Daily Show," long before the Democrat’s personal travails became fodder for the late-night comedic set.
As candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain worked the entertainment TV circuit hard four years ago. But their biggest splashes — think McCain and Sarah Palin on "Saturday Night Live" — didn't come until the homestretch.
Part of the reason for the difference this election cycle could be the flood of Republican debates, which are doing well in the ratings more than halfway through the planned 21 verbal slugfests. Former Reagan administration chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein, in a recent interview with The New York Times, derisively likened the ongoing debates to a "reality show." As with the reality show genre, there’s an eagerness among the players to stand out amid a crowded field.
During the "Weekend Update" segment on the latest "SNL," Huntsman poked fun at his do-or-die approach to the upcoming January primary in New Hampshire, where the former Utah governor already has made 100 appearances. When Seth Meyers asked about his single-digit poll numbers, Huntsman cracked, "It is true, Seth. But only a few months ago I was polling at margin of error."
Such appearances give the candidates an opportunity not only for exposure but for humanizing themselves through self-effacing humor — and, in some cases, for downplaying problems. But there are risks to the strategy — and not just overexposure or an apparently lack of gravitas. Letterman pressed Cain hard on the accusations of sexual harassment leveled against the candidate. Perry did better on the damage control front on Letterman’s show, presenting a Top 10 List of "Rick Perry Excuses" following the Texas governor’s much-mocked debate memory-loss gaffe.
Excuse No. 8: "Hey, I was up late last night watching 'Dancing With the Stars.'"
Obama, who has come under some criticism for making too many TV show appearances (including a spot on "Mythbusters") as president, also oddly invoked a reality TV competition program during an interview late last month on "The Tonight Show." When asked by Jay Leno whether he'd been watching the GOP debates, the president referenced "Survivor": "I’m going to wait until everybody is voted off the island."
If the presidential thing doesn't work out, perhaps some of these candidates will have a future in TV comedy — or, like Palin, in an actual reality show. As we brace for more late-night political comedy from the politicians, check out some recent clips below:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.