With the departure of Jay Leno from the venerable Tonight Show — and ascension of Jimmy Fallon as host — a new generation of late-night television has begun, as well as a shift in political slant.
Leno’s retirement— as one of the most pro-GOP of the late-night crowd – and the show’s move from Los Angeles to New York City with Fallon as host, Tonight is expected to lose much of its heavy hitting political humor and guests, writes Hadas Gold in Politico.
As an example, in his first week, Fallon hosted a visit from First Lady Michelle Obama — a fairly regular visitor to his former Late Night show — but he insists his show will not be the go-to place for heavy interviews with politicians and newsmakers.
The only mention of politics on Thursday’s talk was a nod to how the Healthcare.gov is now working and how children can stay on a parent’s health insurance until age 26.
In contrast, Fallon’s replacement, past Saturday Night Live head writer Seth Meyers says he will focus on politics, with Vice President Joe Biden as one of his first guests.
As the 2014 midterm and 2016 presidential cycles begin, a spot on late-night TV has become effective exposure for candidates, in efforts to humanize politicians and reach out to a (somewhat) younger demographic.
But Leno’s departure changes that dynamic, Gold writes. Both David Letterman and Leno have been reliably political in monologues, Fallon will only address politics if a story gets too humongous to ignore.
“[Johnny] Carson initiated political humor on late-night, but Leno put it on steroids,” says George Mason University head of Center for Media and Public Affairs Robert Lichter, writer of Politics Is a Joke: How TV Comedians Are Remaking Political Life.
“Leno always told far more political jokes than anyone else,” Lichter adds. “With folks like Fallon and others, you’ve got political humor when something big happens … so, for Fallon, politics is just one of many areas. For Leno, it was a major part of his arsenal.”
Others see Fallon’s easing on politics as a good thing in the end, a movement away from the cynicism of the past few decades.
A playful attitude with politicians will be more beneficial to a candidate and the chances of one of Fallon’s bits — like his “slow jam” with President Barack Obama – is likely to “go viral.”
Last year, Leno announced he was on his way out, conservatives lamented his impending departure, even though Leno refers to himself as a fiscal conservative, but socially liberal.
“When you’re trying to build buzz for a new host, having your stuff repeated in politically oriented news is going to get it out to a wider audience,” Lichter says. “So let’s see if Fallon remains what he has been or if he tries to use some of the things Leno led the way on, even if he doesn’t go as far as Leno did.”
“Fallon isn’t particularly good or interested in interviewing big-name politicians,” he adds. “But if you have presidential candidates going on the other shows and not on your show, you may have a problem, whether you like it or not.”