Pete Buttigieg’s stint guest-hosting Jimmy Kimmel Live! on Thursday night was, like his presidential campaign, showboat-y, kind of awkward, and a little better than it had any right to be. While Kimmel has a sardonic and sometimes fratty vibe, Buttigieg offered earnest, nerdy, and above all nostalgic programming. This curious hour of television felt in some ways like an adult version of Sesame Street tailored to the coronavirus moment: well-meaning, more than a little instructive, and starring a Muppet. The studio had no audience save for a few sweetly enthusiastic crew members who were seated at intervals to model social distancing. Buttigieg greeted his guests with elbow bumps (with mixed success). His monologue was packed with self-deprecating jokes, but it attempted to comfort too: “I agree that this virus is no match for the American people. For us to get through this, we have to take immediate action,” he said, stressing the importance of passing the aid package Democrats had proposed.
The combination of circumstances—the empty studio, the stripped-down feel, the goofiness of the host—felt comfortingly lo-fi. It helped that he had three of the kindest men on television on as guests: Tony Hale, Patrick Stewart, and LeVar Burton. Burton hosted a trivia contest between Stewart and Buttigieg—and even the graphic design for the “game show” was so retro it genuinely felt for a moment like Reading Rainbow and Star Trek: The Next Generation were still on television, both modeling a better, gentler, more ethically aspirational society.
The show wasn’t wholly without edge. Buttigieg threw a Tiffany joke into his plea for aid for afflicted Americans. (“Thanks for your support, Eric, Don Jr., whoever that is sitting next to you.”) He joked about Trump: “When you don’t have a real audience, you have to fake one, just like Trump’s inauguration.” Hale made a memorable appearance in the audience, lightly roasting Buttigieg by saying he was working as a seat filler out of pity for Buttigieg’s low turnout. There was a fascinating moment when Stewart—who lavished amiable praise on the former mayor—pointedly talked about how young he was when he became a leftist, and how identifying as a socialist made people flinch at Beverly Hills dinner parties. A star-struck Buttigieg, who otherwise tended to interrupt his guests with middling anecdotes, looked taken aback. And the mostly pleasant buzz was interrupted by low points too: a pre-taped segment about Buttigieg applying for a job at Wetzel’s Pretzels was pretty meh.
And yet the guest-hosting gig was—for a viewer who may have watched out of curiosity, mostly exhausted from politics and coronavirus news—kind of soothing. (This may be a Buttigieg talent that transcends species: My anxious little dog whimpered during the debates whenever Mike Bloomberg or Amy Klobuchar spoke, but when Buttigieg talked, he settled right down and relaxed.) And though Buttigieg’s speech patterns have been compared to Obama’s, he’s closer to the opposite of cool and embraces that: He doesn’t hide how much he knows about Star Trek and shared a photo of himself as a very dorky little boy decked out in Starfleet regalia. Anti-coolness aptly describes his guests too. Hale, who joked that if there were a trivia game about his roles, “the topics would be emasculation and trauma,” managed not to let a nervous Buttigieg interrupt him overmuch. Even when Buttigieg jammed with the band (a version of Spoon’s “The Way We Get By”) during a return from a commercial break—he was good!—it wasn’t quite cool. He joked that he’d hoped he’d inspired gay kids to think “I too can run for president while dressed as the manager of a CarMax.”
What the Mayor Pete hour surprised me with was how much I welcomed that uncoolness. When I first heard Buttigieg was guest-hosting, I slotted it in with a mounting series of depressing crossovers between politics and entertainment, most recently the horror of Sarah Palin singing “Baby Got Back” in a bear suit on The Masked Singer. I was expecting Pete’s hosting gig to be yet another vaguely surreal entry in the annals of the present, one more example of the sadness and stupidity of things. It’s extremely weird to me in principle that a person who just campaigned to lead us as a nation would want to then host a late-night show. (I’m sour enough to also dislike it when candidates show up on Saturday Night Live.) But here’s the thing I’m realizing: If you believe, as I do, that the cultural products we take in matter—that they affect us and change us even when we arrogantly believe that we’re immune to their charms—then it makes no sense to snobbily defend an increasingly porous boundary between late-night TV and presidential addresses. Acknowledging the extent to which politics and culture mix seems pragmatic. I don’t like that Sean Spicer can lie to the public and then ceremonially degrade himself on Dancing With the Stars for Americans’ viewing pleasure and impress them in the process. But that’s how it is—this is the oblique cycle of reputational laundering we’ve developed. “That’s gonna be me in three months, isn’t it?” Buttigieg said after watching a clip of Palin rapping. It might. But if he finds a way to combine his gift for comforting a rattled public with his ease when being uncool, I think he might find better, less mutually degrading channels through which we can all process the collapse of the distinction between politics and culture. You might say he could go where no man has gone before.