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Candidates seek laughs, viral moments on late night talk shows

In this image released by NBC, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump appears with host Jimmy Fallon during a taping of "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016, in New York. (Andrew Lipovsky/NBC via AP)

In an interview with Jimmy Fallon on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” Thursday, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump defended his views on Vladimir Putin and criticized the “vicious” political media. He also joked about his favorite board games and his love of fast food.

The whole lighthearted exchange built up to Fallon’s request at the end: he wanted to tussle the billionaire’s hair. Trump agreed and, well, this happened.

The clip was viewed more than 1 million times on YouTube in less than 24 hours.

This is exactly the kind of moment politicians hope for when they agree to appear on late night talk shows, one that will be buzzed about and replayed on morning shows and cable news the following day and spread to a variety of demographics on social media.

Not everyone was entertained, though.

Anti-Trump Twitter users blasted Fallon for allowing the GOP nominee on his show at all and for not pinning him down with tougher questions. Though Trump is in a statistical tie with Hillary Clinton in recent polls, they argue that he is too dangerous to normalize like this.

“Jimmy Fallon is not a journalist, but Jimmy Fallon is a taxpaying American citizen with a minimal obligation to help keep a tyrant from reaching the most powerful position in the world,” wrote John Hendrickson of Esquire. “He failed that obligation last night.”

A Huffington Post headline screamed that viewers were “justifiably infuriated” with Fallon because he “humanized a dangerous man.”

The hair clip will surely be watched a lot online, but Sophia McClennen, co-author of “Is Satire Saving Our Nation?,” said the initial response suggests many viewers think it was stupid.

“It’s not clear to me that it will be viewed in a way that’ll be useful to Trump,” said McClennen, a professor of international affairs and comparative literature at Penn State.

Criticism of Fallon for not conducting a hard-hitting interrogation is misplaced, experts say.

Neither the candidate nor the host are looking for a substantive dialogue in these situations. Both benefit more from a hilarious viral moment than an intense "gotcha" confrontation.

“In general, it’s a welcoming environment,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a former political media consultant and a professor of advertising at Boston University.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert had been known for asking some tougher questions on their Comedy Central shows in the past, but that was an exception.

“You have two options: you can let the candidate shine and your job is to help them present themselves, or you can hammer them,” he said. “It’s tough to have it both ways.”

Most hosts understandably take the first option.

“Jimmy Fallon is a goofy frat boy kind of comedian. He’s not a political comedian,” McClennen said.

Jon Stewart or Bill Maher would badger Trump to defend his many controversial statements, if they were even willing to put him on the air at all, but his one-on-ones with Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and even Colbert have been tame.

McClennen said the backlash against Fallon may be a function of liberals’ growing frustration with the mainstream media for failing to hold Trump accountable in the way they would like. “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” weaned their audiences to expect comedians to fill that gap.

“That’s not what they’re there for,” she said.

The more casual environment of a late night talk show brings with it a more casual audience, said Amy Bree Becker, an assistant professor of communication at Loyola University Maryland who studies political entertainment and comedy.

“The folks who are watching these shows are a little bit different from those who pay attention to news shows more broadly,” Becker said.

“You’re in essence reaching several million people for free,” said Gary Nordlinger, president of political consulting firm Nordlinger Associates. In a race where traditional paid advertising has arguably had little impact, these appearances are much cheaper alternatives.

Social media has vastly increased the significance of generating a sharable moment that can circulate widely on the internet for days after the show airs, again without costing the campaign anything.

“Back in the day when you were on Johnny Carson or Dick Cavett, maybe it would be written about…but it didn’t have a life of its own,” Berkovitz said. “Now the viral social media is much more powerful than the actual program.”

With younger adults in particular watching less live television and consuming entertainment on their phones and tablets instead, a Facebook post or tweet may be the only way to reach them.

“That’s becoming even more important because I don’t think that many people are in front of their television at 11:30 at night,” Becker said.

Trump may be more comfortable in these settings as a longtime reality TV star and entertainer, but according to Berkovitz, politicians tend to rise to the occasion and display spontaneity and humanity when they sit on the talk show couch.

“Hillary is not chopped liver siting with one of this talk show hosts or hostesses… She knows how to play the game,” he said.

On “Jimmy Kimmel Live” earlier this month, Clinton dramatically opened a pickle jar to prove she is healthy.

While running for Senate in 2000, she memorably played along with a New York State quiz from David Letterman to prove her allegiance to the state.

Trump and Clinton both used appearances on “Saturday Night Live” last fall to gently poke fun at their own image, with Trump even hosting an entire episode.

“When anyone goes on that show, they become an entertainer,” Berkovitz said.

Clinton, who will appear on the “Tonight Show” again next week, has done eight late night interviews during the campaign, one more than Trump, according to CBS.

“In the proper environment, she does quite well with a self-deprecating sense of humor, which in all honesty is exactly what she needs,” Nordlinger said.

Trump, on the other hand, needs to prove that “he’s not a scary guy,” and letting a comedian touch his hair may help accomplish that.

Joking around with Jimmy Fallon seven weeks before the election will not be enough for candidates to completely reinvent themselves, but they still have time to “soften the edges,” Berkovitz said.

“Of all the things for Donald Trump to do, to have his hair messed up is probably the most important way for him to show that he’s a human being.”

Fallon ruffling Trump’s hair and conducting a mock job interview contrasts with the negative opinions most voters hold of the Republican nominee and has the potential to allay some common concerns about his temperament.

“Anyone who was looking to be assured that he could be calmer would get that from the show,” McClennen said.

Entertainment and comedy programs have taken on a larger role in politics in recent campaign cycles as the late night comedy landscape has expanded.

“It has been decades now that late night has been a relevant platform for politicians,” Berkovitz said. “It’s part and parcel of how politicians and candidates communicate in a way that much of the public finds preferable to a Sunday morning newsmaker show.”

Years ago, research suggested that politicians who went on “The Colbert Report” saw a fundraising spike following their appearances, but with the amount of competition on the airwaves now, McClennen doubts that effect would be seen today.

“When there was some novelty to it, you could really get a lot of press for going on a show,” she said. The impact is generally more limited now unless something memorable happens.

The Fallon appearance Thursday night followed Trump’s sit-down on “The Dr. Oz Show” that aired earlier in the day. The theatrical reveal of results of his latest physical was accompanied by a softball interview about his diet and exercise habits.

Clinton similarly used appearances on “Ellen” and “The View” earlier in the campaign to appeal to female audiences and show another side of her personality.

Appearances by candidates’ family members generally have less of an effect.

Chelsea Clinton and Trump’s children are prominent surrogates for their parents who can help reinforce their campaign message, and voters do care about candidates’ family lives, but nothing they say is likely to turn the tide of the race.

Bill Clinton, who appeared on “The Daily Show” Thursday, is a slightly unusual case, for a number of reasons. As a former president himself, he has a much larger profile than, say, Eric Trump, and he and his wife have always been seen by voters as a package deal.

“Bill and Hillary Clinton are so indivisible that he could have an impact,” Nordlinger said.

The danger is that voters may experience “Clinton fatigue” at the thought of the couple returning to the White House or experience discomfort with a man occupying what is traditionally the First Lady’s role.

“My guess is that the campaign isn’t quite sure what to do with Bill,” McClennen said. “Bill is as much a liability as an asset.”

The former president has occasionally created unnecessary headaches for his wife with inopportune comments and outbursts, but he also has a much higher favorability rating than she does.

“It’s not clear that Bill being likable helps Hillary all that much,” McClennen said.

For both candidates and their families, a late night talk show appearance remains a lower risk, and potentially higher reward, option than facing an extended grilling on a Sunday morning news show.

“For most voters, they’d rather watch them with the Jimmys or the Colberts than they would a Stephanopoulos,” Berkovitz said.

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