RICK PERRY’S presidential campaign may or may not be toast, but his prospects for hosting “Saturday Night Live’’ have risen considerably - and in politics, that’s not such a terrible thing. Within an hour of his brain freeze on last week’s CNBC debate, Perry had a one-liner for assembled reporters (“I’m sure glad I had my boots on, because I sure stepped in it out there’’). The next night, he was doing the Top 10 list on “The Late Show With David Letterman.’’ (Number 6: “You try concentrating with Mitt Romney smiling at you. That is one handsome dude.’’)
In a sense, that “oops’’ moment was the best thing to happen to Perry’s campaign in a while. A string of lame debate performances had him typecast as slow. Those snappy comebacks showed him in new light. Letterman will surely invite him back. And before last weekend, was there anyone complimenting Perry on his delivery?
Chalk up another reason why campaigns are wedded to late-night comedy shows. The benefits for candidates are well-known: a larger and broader audience than they get from political shows, and a chance to show the public their human side. (The risks are clear, too, as President Obama learned in 2009, when he joked about the Special Olympics on “The Tonight Show.’’)
But the not-so-dirty secret of late-night TV is that it’s often good for voters, too.
“Oxymoronic as it may sound, you end up having a more serious discussion with the late-night comedians,’’ said veteran public relations consultant Chris Lehane, who handled media for such politicians as Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Late-night shows, Lehane told me, are “the information-age equivalent of a town hall:’’ the hosts “sort of cut to the chase and you actually have a substantive discussion, as opposed to a gotcha discussion.’’
Over the course of a long and bruising campaign, that “gotcha’’ dynamic is both a blessing and a curse. Yes, there is a need for tough questions from the press. But “gotcha’’ also has a way of distorting the discussion, steering attention toward quick and meaningless gaffes as opposed to failures of substance. That’s especially true as election days approach: News outlets crave a daily storyline, and for convenience’s sake, that story often has to do with a misstep a candidate made at a morning press conference.
That dynamic is writ large, Lehane said, on the Sunday morning talk shows, where, from a candidate’s standpoint, “your whole goal is to basically come out and not do any harm to yourself.’’ When Tim Russert helmed “Meet the Press,’’ Lehane said, campaigns would spend days in preparation for an interview, trying to anticipate every question Russert could possibly ask.
It’s no shock that campaigns prefer the more collegial way of preparing for a late-night show, where the arc of an interview is laid out in advance, jokes are penned in collaboration with professional comedy writers, and the hosts have the freedom to indulge their curiosity, so long as the discussion seems interesting enough. In a Letterman appearance in 2004, Lehane recalls, then-presidential candidate Wesley Clark was treated to an 18-minute policy discussion that spanned two commercial breaks and barely contained a joke. “It was one of the most serious interviews in the entire campaign,’’ Lehane said.
But even talk show hosts with less substantive chops can steer the conversation into useful places. Herman Cain has made an art form out of stonewalling questions about the sexual harassment allegations lodged against him; on the CNBC debate, he laughed off the issue and tried to move on, and, essentially, the moderators let him. But when he went on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” last week - on the same day Sharon Bialek held a press conference to accuse him of sexual harassment - the material was too good for Kimmel to let go. And because this was a comedy show, not a debate, Kimmel had the freedom to keep coming back.
Cain parried the relentless jokes, but he looked uncomfortable doing it. Humor can give you a way out of a jam. But it can also make the bad things stick.