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2020 candidates look to late-night to stand out in a crowded Democratic field

This Nov. 6, 2018 photo released by CBS shows host Stephen Colbert on the set of "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" in New York. (Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via AP)

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., announced her entry into the 2020 presidential race on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" Tuesday as a late-night comedy ecosystem that has grown increasingly hostile to President Donald Trump over the last two years prepares to navigate a long and brutal campaign that promises big ratings and big controversy.

Gillibrand’s announcement itself, first reported by CBS News Monday, is not a surprise—she has been staffing up and leasing office space in recent weeks—but the venue is unusual, albeit not unprecedented. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards launched his campaign in 2004 on “The Daily Show,” but most candidates still favor staging their own rollout events where they control the microphone, as former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro did when he announced his 2020 bid from his hometown of San Antonio Saturday.

Gillibrand joins a wide field of Democratic candidates angling to take on Trump that is only beginning to take shape 22 months before Election Day. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, announced her plans to run over the weekend, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., confirmed she was setting up an exploratory committee on new year’s eve. Several other lesser-known candidates are also already on the campaign trail.

Experts say turning to a late-night show rather than counting on cable news to cover an announcement speech makes sense, especially for a Democratic candidate seeking a large, young, and mostly sympathetic audience.

“The viewers who tune into late-night comedy are different from who you’re going to reach on a cable news show,” said Amy Bree Becker, co-editor of “Political Humor in a Changing Media Landscape: A New Generation of Research” and a professor at Loyola University Maryland.

Through mid-December, Colbert was averaging 3.67 million viewers per night this season, leading late night in total viewership, although “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” still has a wider audience in the key 18-49 demographic. Candidates know any newsworthy moments will get replay on cable news and shares on social media the following day, further spreading their message without costing them a cent.

“If Gillibrand decides to announce, there will then be the story of her choosing to announce on Colbert that would give her even more free media that would go well beyond that demographic,” said Sophia McClennen, author of “Trump is a Joke: Why Satire Makes Sense When Politics Doesn’t,” as well as two books about Colbert.

In the last year, several prospective Democratic candidates have stopped by Colbert’s show and hinted at their 2020 plans, as have a few Republicans who have been floated as potential primary challengers for Trump. Tuesday marked Gillibrand’s second appearance on the “Late Show” since the midterm elections, and likely fellow 2020 contender Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., was interviewed by Colbert last week.

“Given the large number of candidates and given the great age disparency that could happen... they want to distinguish themselves as of different generations and likeability,” said Jeffrey Jones, executive director of the Peabody Awards and author of “Entertaining Politics: Satiric Television and Civic Engagement.”

In December, Castro and twin brother Rep. Joaquin Castro appeared on “The Late Show,” with Joaquin semi-jokingly revealing his brother’s plans. Other late-night shows have proven to be popular destinations for 2020 hopefuls as well.

“These shows are being taken seriously,” said Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, “and I think the hosts use their humor seriously.”

Late-night comedy has long offered politicians an opportunity to show off their personal side and communicate with voters in a more relaxed environment than a debate or a newsroom. Then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s 1992 saxophone solo on “The Arsenio Hall Show” or his wife’s 2016 “Saturday Night Live” cameo are just two examples.

Even the most memorable moments in late-night political comedy rarely change public opinion. However, they can help solidify public perception of a politician’s foibles, as “SNL” proved with Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford, Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, and even Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump.

“We know that it’s affecting opinion. The issue is we also pretty much know it’s not changing people’s views,” McClennen said. “If I’m a Trump supporter, there’s simply nothing Colbert is going to say about Trump that’s going to change that.”

Candidates running in 2020 face a different landscape in late-night comedy and in the media in general than they did in 2016. Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel of ABC, and Seth Meyers of NBC’s “Late Night” have embraced political content, often with an anti-Trump flair, and cable networks and streaming services are offering audiences more choices for political comedy than ever.

“It didn’t used to be that way,” said Alison Dagnes, author of the forthcoming “Super Mad at Everything All the Time: Political Media and Our National Anger” and a professor of political science at Shippensburg University. “[Former ‘Tonight Show’ host] Johnny Carson was who everybody went to at the end of the day because he was not political.”

“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” were relatively new programs in the run-up to the 2016 election, but they have cemented their voice and their audience since then. Several other talk shows have come and, in some cases, gone on streaming services including programs hosted by Michelle Wolf, Sarah Silverman, and Hasan Minaj.

“What happened in 2016 was extraordinary, and clearly what happens daily is extraordinary,” Jones said, “so you’re getting a rash of commentary across all kinds of channels about an administration that really is pretty rogue and against the norms of American politics.”

Things have changed for Trump since 2016 too. Throughout much of the campaign, he enjoyed an uneasy but cordial relationship with late-night shows, sitting down with Kimmel and Colbert at times and even hosting “Saturday Night Live” in 2015.

An appearance on “The Tonight Show” late in the race for a lighthearted interview that culminated with Fallon playing with Trump’s hair had a seismic impact, though. Fallon faced an immediate and passionate backlash from liberal audiences who felt he helped humanize and normalize a man they believed to be a racist hatemonger.

“Fallon was excoriated for fluffing his hair and not taking him to task for things he said...,” Dagnes said. “Fallon is still answering for that. People still bring it up, and that was two years ago.”

Fallon’s ratings, and his reputation, have not fully recovered. Colbert, meanwhile, embraced anti-Trump sentiment to salvage a show that was struggling to find an audience. In 2017, Kimmel attracted praise and criticism by challenging Republicans on health care and gun control.

To be fair, Trump has also taken anti-comedian sentiment in the White House to new heights, regularly ranting on Twitter about “Saturday Night Live” skits and late-night monologue jokes that offend him.

“We have more of a direct engagement with comedy and a combative response, whereas most politicians before him were happy to get the attention,” Becker said.

The last sitting president to run for re-election, Barack Obama, welcomed the chance to appear in late-night during his campaign, chatting with Jon Stewart, Jay Leno, and David Letterman and even slow-jamming the news with Fallon. This time around, audiences probably should not hold their breaths for "Carpool Karaoke" with President Trump.

“I would be a little surprised if Trump actually goes on any of these shows this year,” Jones said.

Given the increasingly partisan environment, Lichter expects late-night appearances will become an even bigger piece of the Democratic campaign circuit as the campaign drags on.

“It’ll fit right in with the tenor of those shows if you’ve got a like-minded politician sitting there with you. By the same token, Democratic politicians can expect to get an easy ride,” he said. “It wouldn’t be a problem for America if Fallon tousled Joe Biden’s hair.”

Since taking office—and even before then, really—President Trump has been the favorite target of late-night comedians. According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, nearly half of all political jokes made by Colbert, Kimmel, Fallon, and Noah in 2017 focused on Trump.

“These comedians are vehemently anti-Trump and it gives them tons of ammunition,” Dagnes said. “If comedy is about punching up, there is nobody more up than the president of the United States.”

The increasingly anti-Trump bent of late night has drawn an increasingly anti-Trump audience, exacerbating polarization that has crept in across entertainment and culture.

“Joe Biden got made fun of plenty of times for all the gaffes he made, but the focus has certainly become more partisan than it was before,” Becker said.

During the 2016 campaign, Sec. Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and the various GOP back-benchers Trump defeated all took frequent hits from comedians. Once the Democratic field settles and the public familiarizes itself with the candidates, experts expect the same in 2020 regardless of how the hosts feel about Trump personally.

“I don’t think this is conservative talk radio where you pick a position and that’s all you say,” Lichter said. “Politicians are figures of fun for late-night humor.”

That humor only works if the audience knows who the politicians are, which is not the case for a lot of current Democratic hopefuls.

“If I make a scathingly brilliant Julian Castro joke, most people aren’t going to understand it,” Dagnes said, predicting the comedy will come once the public starts paying attention.

“Once they’re a frontrunner,” she added, “those knives are going to be out, and it’s going to be funny and it’s going to be brutal.”

It will also provide a respite from the enormous amount of attention the Trump administration has received in the media over the last two years.

“What seems likely to happen is it will be less of a constant, ‘Look what Trump did today that was ridiculous,’” McClennen said. “There will be more range.”

Jones stressed the distinction between the comedic segments of late-night talk shows and the interviews. Hosts may pitch softballs in one-on-one chats, but monologue and sketch writers will go for the joke every time.

“Comedians often don’t have to work super-hard to pick out things to ridicule, and in the 2016 Republican [primary] election, there was a pretty extraordinary cast of characters assembled there,” he said. The questions the shows’ writers will be asking this time are, “What will the Democrats do to distinguish themselves, in what ways will those things deserve commentary, and then are they ridiculous in and of themselves?”

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