A key chapter of the recent book Strange Bedfellows, an indispensable map for thinkers navigating the ever-expanding territory where late-night comedy and Beltway business mingle, begins by pointing toward the Depression-era musical comedy Stand Up and Cheer! There, prior to some moments of Shirley Temple twinkling, an FDR stand-in drafts a Broadway producer into boosting the country’s morale by serving as the secretary of amusement. Until life imitates art and some patriotic entertainment impresario—Judd Apatow? Ashton Kutcher?—ascends to that post, the commander in chief will have to shoulder that burden himself. Thus did Barack Obama materialize on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno (NBC, 11:35 p.m. ET) last night, the first sitting president to appear in such a venue. He sought to repair the broken confidence of a broke nation—or at least to address that segment of his constituency that sticks its head back in the sand when a presidential press conference pre-empts Dancing With the Stars.
Leno began the show by presenting some comedy unburdened, as usual, by wit. Then the band struck up “Hail to the Chief,” and Obama glided onto the set. Like a starlet hitting the stage in advance of her movie opening wide, he had an exciting new project to promote—the aversion of a financial catastrophe perhaps coming soon to a Hooverville near you.
One school of thought says the chief executive should not be doing something as unserious as appearing on a talk show in a time of crisis. But Leno is no more frivolous an interviewer than, say, Matt Lauer. He is not, after all, any funnier. In any case, the slow-pitch questions he sent Obama’s way combined elements of town-hall-meeting pleas, fundraising-dinner chitchat, and rope-line flattering patter.
When Obama addresses the country next Tuesday, he’ll be playing the wise father. Last night, his soberly paternal talk—about AIG and economic stimulus, mostly, with the customary moral cheerleading about getting “back to those values that built America”—was framed by his appearance in his increasingly familiar role as a sitcom dad.
This figure is faintly melancholic but resilient. He is the mildly suffering son-in-law; in the scheme of Leno’s monologue, the president had flown to the West Coast to escape his wife’s mother at the White House. He is the faintly bewildered head of household; chatting about his family’s first ride on Marine One, Obama depicted himself trying to interest his daughters in the majesty of the capital as they sat absorbed in a candy dish. Even the evening’s gaffe—of an attempt at bowling: “It was like the Special Olympics or something”—issued from an attempt to sell his humanizing haplessness.
Another element of Obama’s self-deprecating humor in apolitical settings is his characterization of himself as a pandering politician. At one point, talking about his March Madness picks, he beamed to Leno that it’s “a complete coincidence” that the teams he’s got his money on hail from the swing states of Iowa, Indiana, and North Carolina. In conclusion, regarding the delay in the appearance of a puppy romping about the White House lawn, he said, “This is Washington. That was a campaign promise.” Obama was feeling relaxed by that point, so loose that his utterance of dog emerged as dawg, calling to mind the woofing “dog pound” of The Arsenio Hall Show, on which Bill Clinton famously blew his sax as a candidate, a reveille awaking American politics to this new late-night world.