Taking Late Night Comedy Seriously: How Candidate Appearances on Late Night Television Can Engage Viewers

Article excerpt

Candidate appearances on entertainment television have become a staple of recent presidential campaigns, yet little is known about their effect on voters. Many assume that they leave viewers uninformed and focused on the candidate's personal image. In this article, the author investigates this idea with an experiment using John Kerry's 2004 appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman. He finds that-contrary to popular expectations-late night interviews have particular features that can, at times, engage otherwise politically disinterested viewers, causing them to process and recall substantive policy information.

Keywords: political communication; elections and voting behavior; political psychology; public opinion; political participation

Recent presidential campaigns have found candidates flocking to entertainment television, making talk shows and late night comedy programs standard campaign venues. Ever since Bill Clinton's 1992 visit to The Arsenio Hall Show (see Hayden 2002; Patterson 2004), nearly every presidential hopeful-whether a second-tier primary candidate or major party nominee-has hit the talk show circuit in an attempt to connect with voters through this entertaining medium. It has become routine, if not expected, to find "presidential candidates chatting with Oprah Winfrey, Rosie O'Donnell, and Regis Philbin [and] trading one-liners with Jay Leno and David Letterman" (Baum 2005, 213; also see Patterson 2004; Moy, Xenos, and Hess 2005, 199). These appearances have gained real political relevance, as they are seen by millions and are widely covered in the mainstream press, and yet, while there are many conjectures, there is little empirical evidence as to how they affect viewers' political decisions.

The common perception is that they help candidates seem more ordinary and amiable to scores of often hard-to-reach voters.1 Many commentators and campaign advisors claim that "it is a terrific way to humanize the product" (Sella 2000, 75) because "a relaxed, lighthearted interview can make a stiff, somewhat formal candidate . . . seem almost personable" (Mason 2004, 14), which "is crucial in an age where hopefuls are always trying to be the candidate you'd like to grab a drink with" (Woodward 2000, 1; also see Frey 2004; Baum 2005, 214; Brewer and Cao 2006, 22; Baumgartner and Morris 2006, 342).

There is some concern, however, about the effect that these appearances might have on viewers. Critics contend that these "cozy gab sessions increasingly serve as a substitute for more substantive exchanges" (Mason 2004, 14) and "trivialize serious issues of governing by infusing politics with entertainment" (Davis and Owen 1998, 92).2 Others worry that they will prime millions to focus disproportionately on the candidate's personal image rather than his or her policy positions when deciding for whom to vote (Sella 2000; Mason 2004; Kolbert 2004).3 Indeed, many see these appearances as contributing to a more image-based electorate that knows less than it should about the key issues in the campaign.

In this article, I examine how appearances on late night talk shows affect what viewers know about politics and the criteria they use to evaluate the candidate- do they leave viewers uninformed and overly image conscious? I argue that conventional expectations may be incomplete. I start in the next section by discussing how these appearances might prime viewers to consider major policy issues when evaluating the candidate. I also discuss the related process by which people might learn factual policy information from watching. I then describe an experiment in which college students-who, more than any other group, claim to learn about politics from talk shows (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2004)-are exposed to John Kerry's 2004 appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman (Letterman). Results show that participants are drawn in by elements of Kerry's appearance, leading them to become cognizant and knowledgeable of key issues in the campaign. …