New roles in the presidential campaign: candidates as talk show comedians


Alexandra Manoliu

PhD candidate in the Political Science Department at the University of Montreal. Her thesis is focused on political TV series and their impact on audience cynicism. She is a member of GRCP (Groupe de Recherche en Communication Politique) and CECD-CSDC (Centre pour l’Etude de la Citoyennete Domocratique- Center for the Study of Democratic Citizenship).


US2016 - Section 7

Section 7: Pop Culture and Populism

A popular instrument in political marketing is the attempt of candidates to “humanize themselves”, in order to appeal to a larger audience. In recent decades talk-shows have been one of the best ways to make that possible and present politicians in a more human, approachable light. Baum (2005) even talks about how presidential candidates are “talking the vote” by “hitting the talk show circuit”. What started off in a tentative way with Bill Clinton playing the saxophone in The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992 has nowadays become the norm: politicians showing off their hidden talents, playful and joking side to gain the sympathy (and votes) of broader segments of the electorate.

But the way presidential candidates “hit the talk show circuit” in 2016 possibly created a new trend for future campaigns: it’s not about talking the vote, it’s about playing the vote. Trump and Clinton changed the rules of the campaign game and almost became comedians during their talk show appearances, passing from the role of interviewee to one of a performer whose purpose is to entertain the audience.

Both had a very intense media presence, but their attempt to appeal to a broader segment of population (those seeking entertainment and not political information) by appearing more human, adopting a “one of us” image and proving their sense of humor, “forced” them to become comedians who act in short sketches: attacking or impersonating the opponent, making fun of his statements or physical aspects, talking about their own policies proposals in a simplistic way, and ultimately being able to make fun of themselves. Let’s just consider the presence of the two candidates in one of the most popular entertainment talkshows: The Tonight Show.

Hillary Clinton appears on The Tonight Show in September 2015 in a sketch where she “played” herself having a phone conversation with a fake Donald Trump (played by Fallon). As the fake Trump interviews her, she has a chance to talk about issues on her agenda, but also make fun of her opponent’s hair, treat him like a true character, sipping on a glass of wine while pretending to listen to him and rolling her eyes. She’s being more than approachable and funny when she laughs about Trumps’ fake hair and asks Fallon to prove hers is real: “Did he ever let you touch his hair? Go ahead, touch mine!”

In January 2016 she appeared again on Fallon’s show and talked about her assets as a future president in a “Mock Job interview for President”. The host of the talk-show becomes a political commentator and interviewer (Jones 2005). When asked about her opponent, she tells that the campaign is going to be “quite a show-down” (and she guessed it well). On September 2016, she has a humorous moment in the same show under the title of “Kid letters with Hillary Clinton” where Fallon reads her letters received from kids.

But that is not her best performance. She “makes her first steps” into an acting career in a Saturday Night’s Live sketch, where she plays the role of a bartender who mocks Trump whilst having a funny dialogue and singing with a “fake” Hillary, played by Kate McKinnon.

Trump on the other hand, had fewer appearances and was not that “extreme”. He tried to show his human, cool, friendly and humorous side, but not with the same magnitude. He had three appearances in The Tonight Show. First was the one in September 2015 where he “interviews himself in the mirror” and allows the moderator to impersonate and imitate him. In January 2016 he appeared again on the show, taking the “mock interview for President” and making jokes about his looks.

In September 2016 he takes another “mock interview” to talk about latest campaign events and answer questions. He does perhaps the gesture no one expects and allows Fallon to mess his hair (though he does not seem comfortable).

Despite that both had fairly equal time and number of appearances in The Tonight Show, there is an obvious difference between the two candidates: one (Clinton) does manage to “humanize” herself and shape her message and speech in accordance with the type of show, while Trump tried the same strategy without much success. The evident thing is that both “hit the talk show circuit” (both have been present in almost all the main entertainment shows) as a campaign strategy to present themselves in a whole new light in front of potential voters who tune in for an hour of entertainment; and they do that from a new position: the politician who can turn himself into an actor/comedian to win the hearts (aka votes) of his audience.