No Joke: Leno’s goodbye to the ‘Tonight Show’ may mean hello to politics

Some want late-night comedian to follow footsteps of other stars

"I really don't miss the spotlight," former President George W. Bush said of his post-White House years during an interview Tuesday with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show." (NBC via associated Press)“I really don’t miss the spotlight,” former President George W. Bush said of his post-White House years during an interview Tuesday with Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.” (NBC via associated Press)

He wrangled hundreds of superstars for 22 years, hosted 4,610 shows, amused and endeared himself to millions of Americans, and now exits the stage with grace, class and the highest ratings of all for late night TV. Jay Leno bids farewell to NBC’s “Tonight” show Thursday night, forever and ever.

So now what?


PHOTOS: Jay Leno: Goodbye 'Tonight,' hello politics?


Some say the comedic kingpin should enter politics. Ronald Reagan did it — along with other stars such as Shirley Temple, Sonny Bono, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Fred Thompson and Fred Grandy, among those who dared mix Hollywood with pomp and policy.

“I don’t know about his politics, but I think he’d be a good political candidate,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who was a senior adviser to a multitude of candidates here and abroad, including presidential nominees Al Gore and John F. Kerry.

“There’s a certain skill set that Jay Leno shares with politicians. Communicating with people, principally through television, a winning personality, a common touch, a way with people and an ability to carry on a conversation through mass media,” Mr. Devine said. “He’s got discipline, an ability to deliver a message, and he’s been doing that for 30 years.”

But amid all those shiny credentials comes reality.

Jay’s got the skills, and he’s pretty extraordinary. But then there are the problems — the scrutiny that comes with politics and subjecting your family to it all. That’s the factors that you wonder about,” he added.

Not every performer is suited for the political realm. Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak noted that actors have had better luck than stand-up comics at the ballot box.


SEE ALSO: Jay Leno’s biggest target: Bill Clinton, more jokes about Democrats than Republicans


“It is rare for a comedian to successfully break into politics, with Al Franken being a lone example. Jay Leno appears to be a Republican, but he also appears committed to comedy and his main hobby, collecting old cars,” he said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see him venture into more political work, perhaps fundraising for some candidates here and there, but he has earned a happy retirement and I suspect he will choose that, not politics,” Mr. Mackowiak said.

Could be. But Mr. Leno was intensely interested in politics during his “Tonight Show” tenure, and he did have a partisan-tinged preference for his subject matter, according to a painstaking analysis by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University.

Of the 43,892 jokes about public figures and public affairs Mr. Leno told during his years on the air, 10,885 were aimed at Democrats and 9,465 at Republicans. The host’s favorite target? That was Bill Clinton, the butt of 4,604 jokes.

Jay Leno put politics on the agenda of late night talk shows. He made late night comedy a source of infotainment for audiences and a source of concern for politicians. He was never edgy or trendy but he was always relevant, timely, and funny,” said Robert Lichter, who led the research.

Not everyone agrees that celebrity and politics make a good match.

“It’s not that celebrities should not run for office. The problem is that politics has become a monolithic popularity contest to the detriment of the rule of law,” said Shane Krauser, director of the American Academy for Constitutional Education.

He notes that a former “American Idol” star has declared his intention to run for office, likely boasting a stage resume that is better than his political acumen.

“Does Clay Aiken really know the ins and outs of our Constitution? Does he understand the limited scope of his authority that the Constitution grants him? Does he understand how to counter executive action? What does he say about the NSA and the Fourth Amendment?” he asked.

“If history is any guide, we’ll continue to look to a person’s hairstyle, their smile, and their Hollywood performance to determine whether they are politically astute and true statesmen. This is the tragedy of America,” Mr. Krauser said.

Mr. Leno himself has vowed not to give up traditional stand-up comedy; he performed before a live audience more than 100 times in 2013. There have been calls from CNN and the History Channel for special broadcast projects. And because he’s already written a book and pens a column for Popular Mechanics, ongoing authorship would certainly be a possibility. The 63-year-old comic could always just relax and tend to his collection of 100 vintage automobiles.

But he also is very canny and understands the political persona at the highest level, having hosted one sitting president — President Obama — and three former presidents — George W. Bush, Mr. Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Those who pined to be president also showed up, including Sen. John McCain, Mr. Kerry and Mitt Romney.

Mr. Leno bore personal witness to an action hero who made the leap into politics.

Mr. Schwarzenegger entered the fray slowly, appointed to serve on a national fitness board in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, who referred to him as “Conan the Republican.” A decade later, the California Republican Party asked the actor to run for governor of the Golden State.

Naturally, he accepted the challenge during an appearance on Mr. Leno’s show.

“It’s the most difficult decision I’ve made in my entire life, except the one I made in 1978 when I decided to get a bikini wax,” Mr. Schwarzenegger said in the aftermath.

Mr. Grandy, who portrayed a cheerful purser aboard “The Love Boat” made a more immediate decision. When the popular ABC show left the air, Mr. Grandy left Hollywood and headed home to Iowa, intent on running for Congress.

He won, and stayed in office for eight years.

“As I look back on it, I probably didn’t know any better,” Mr. Grandy told the Sioux City Journal in a 2012 interview.

Jimmy Fallon, who takes over as host of the “Tonight” show Feb. 17, abandoned his sure-footed comic stance when he shared a moment on air with Mr. Leno on Tuesday night. The young replacement was visibly moved as he bade his personal farewell, and the pair shook hands.

His description of the outgoing star? “The nicest guy in the business,” Mr. Fallon told the appreciative audience.

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