Talk show politics: no laughing matter

Jay Leno walks a fine line with links to Schwarzenegger


October 26, 2003|By Lynn Smith | Lynn Smith,Los Angeles Times

The first thing almost everybody says about Jay Leno is that he's nice. He visits old friends in the hospital. He brings his new state-of-the-art motorcycles to local hangouts to the delight of fellow bikers. He gives out free tickets to The Tonight Show to star-struck autograph hounds.

So, what's a nice guy like this doing in the murky sludge of power politics? A Washington, D.C., think tank is monitoring his joke output. Political watchdogs are scrutinizing his relationship with the newly elected governor of California. And whether he likes it or not, America's leading late-night talk-show host finds himself on the leading edge of the merger of politics and entertainment.

A stand-up comedian who started out joking about cars and girls in the Ed Sullivan era, Leno served as a key conduit for Arnold Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial campaign, ranging from the Tonight Show announcement of Schwarzenegger's candidacy to Leno's introduction of the governor-elect at his victory party.

NBC executives defended that appearance as a personal decision, and the comedian has avoided serious questions about his increasingly powerful role as a funnyman who's become part of the political process. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

According to recent surveys, 10 percent of Americans -- and nearly half of those under 30 -- now use the late-night shows as sources of news about politics. The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, with roughly 5.5 million viewers, leads The Late Show With David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel Live and Late Night With Conan O'Brien. When a Leno guest says or does something newsworthy, millions more see clips the next day on news shows or read about it in papers and magazines.

"What happens on Leno has more impact than [cable news networks] CNN, MSNBC or Fox," says Chad Griffin, a Hollywood political consultant.

Nixon: 'Sock it to me'

Candidate appearances on popular television shows are nothing new. Two months before the general election in 1968, Richard Nixon appeared on the premiere of Laugh-In, delivering the show's signature line: "Sock it to me."

"It was considered a brilliant stroke," says University of Califor-nia, Irvine, historian Jon Wiener, and it set the stage for candidate Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992. Both Al Gore and George W. Bush followed suit with Leno in their presidential campaigns.

Democrat Howard Dean showed up on The Tonight Show a few weeks ago. He played a guitar on the street as Hollywood producer Rob Reiner dropped a dollar in his case. The clip appeared later on news segments about campaign fund-raising.

A product of Hollywood and a frequent guest on the show, Schwarzenegger was already savvy about the marketing opportunity for unfiltered air time that Leno's show provides to celebrities and candidates.

For those who have followed the steady overlapping of politics and entertainment, Leno's short introductory speech on Schwar-zenegger's election night represented a new descent on the "slippery slope" toward a democracy built on media fantasy and connections. Had Leno been a Schwarze-negger supporter all along? Is he a mouthpiece for certain politicians, Republicans particularly? Should the show be required to give equal time to all candidates?

At the least, Leno's appearance at a partisan affair was unusual for a mainstream entertainer, says Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media & Public Affairs, a Washington, D.C., media think tank. Surveys indicate public hostility can arise when entertainers get involved in politics. Any entertainer who aligns himself with one side of an issue risks losing the part of his audience that holds the opposing viewpoint.

But Leno gains as well. As he joked at Schwarzenegger's victory party, "Tonight is a testament of just how important one appearance on The Tonight Show can be, ladies and gentlemen." The next evening, Schwarze-negger appeared on the show to tease Leno about looking bored at the rally.

With the underdogs nipping at his heels in the ratings, Leno was interested in celebrity and politics, and in Schwarzenegger, he got them both, observers say.

Admired Mort Sahl

Until now, Leno's private views have been visible only in support of the efforts of his wife, Mavis, to obtain equality for women and girls in Afghanistan. "There's no question he is very supportive of women's rights," says Katherine Spillar, executive vice president of the Feminist Majority Founda-tion in Los Angeles, a research and education organization focused on women's equality and health, with an emphasis on political action.

Leno is often quoted as a man who loves his job and the life it affords him. "He's definitely not a Hollywood guy," says a friend from Leno's car and motorcycle circle. Leno neither drinks nor smokes (except for the occasional pipe), he says. "He likes to tell jokes and be happy and ride bikes and give his money away to charity."

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