Obama On 'Colbert': Comedian In Chief Jokes While World Burns

Sorry, but I prefer my presidents to be gloomy and brooding.

Or at the very least, I prefer they avoid appearing on comedy shows. This puts me in an apparent minority (possibly of one) because audiences, presidents and the late-night shows they appear on seem to love these “humanizing” media opportunities.

President Obama sure seemed to enjoy himself last night on “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central. Stephen Colbert enjoyed himself too. So did Colbert’s audience of young people who crowded into an auditorium at George Washington University for this special show originating from Washington. (You can watch the whole thing here.) 



I even enjoyed myself at times -- against my better judgment.  Maybe I’m a killjoy (prone to killing my own joy more than anyone else’s), but amid all the merriment, I couldn’t help thinking about the mess the world is in and wondering: Is it appropriate for the President of the United States to be cavorting on a late-night comedy show? Shouldn’t he be holed up in a study somewhere in the White House burning the midnight oil to read reports, write correspondence and mull over possible scenarios for solving the world’s problems?

On “Colbert” last night, Obama was the sole guest. In the first portion of his appearance, he was the star of a lengthy comedy bit in which he replaced Colbert, and seated in Colbert’s chair, recited a monologue from a TelePrompTer that was originally intended for Colbert to recite.  Since it was a Colbert monologue, it was highly critical of the president.

Thus, you had President Obama delivering a critique of himself and his policies -- most notably, ObamaCare. People seem to love this kind of thing. It makes them feel warm and fuzzy when they get to see their President joking around. And when a president can deliver lines that poke fun at himself, people really approve of that too.

Presidents and their handlers are no doubt aware of this phenomenon, which is why the President goes on the late-night shows to begin with. President Obama has been somewhat of a pioneer in this area, the first President to appear on a slew of TV talk shows while in office -- including the Leno and Fallon “Tonight” shows, the “Letterman” show, “The Daily Show,” “The View” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2011.

The reasons why a President would appear on these shows are obvious: He doesn’t get asked tough questions, and even if he did, he always gets ample time to have his say. Plus, studio audiences, who have already been warmed up and primed to applaud and laugh whenever possible, are extremely welcoming and admiring. It helps when an audience is on the younger side, such as those who attend tapings for “Colbert” and Jon Stewart, but the President is practically guaranteed an ovation (usually standing) from any studio audience lucky enough to have scored tickets on the day he is scheduled to appear, no matter what the median age of the ticketholders. 

In the second half of his appearance on “Colbert” last night, the President had the opportunity to expound on his healthcare initiatives (reciting how many millions of people have signed up) and on his recent executive order on immigration (he made his oft-repeated claim that it would have not been necessary if only Congress had passed an immigration-reform bill).

So what’s wrong with a president having a little fun? Nothing, really. But I can’t help thinking at such times about past presidents and how they wouldn’t be caught dead appearing on a comedy show while in office. You didn’t see Eisenhower on Steve Allen’s “Tonight Show.” Or Kennedy with Jack Paar; or Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan or George H.W. Bush on “Johnny Carson”; or Clinton or George W. Bush on “Letterman” or “Leno.”

Maybe it just wasn’t the fashion in those days for presidents to reveal their lighterhearted selves in so public a manner as appearing on -- and in some cases, participating in -- a comedy show. Appearing on a comedy show, by its very nature, makes a president seem unserious, which can be unsettling to some (or at the very least, unsettling to me) who worry generally that when a president assumes the role of Comedian In Chief, he isn’t taking his job and its responsibilities seriously.  

Or maybe I just don’t get the joke.

20 comments about "Obama On 'Colbert': Comedian In Chief Jokes While World Burns".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, December 9, 2014 at 2:52 p.m.

    Maybe you're on to something with his approval numbers now dipping into the 30s. Thirty-nine percent of Americans approve of his job performance, compared to 52 percent who disapprove, according to the latest Bloomberg Politics poll.

  2. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, December 9, 2014 at 2:55 p.m.

    Gallup pegs him at 43 percent, up from early November. At the same point, in second December after re-election, Bush was at 37%

  3. Scott Gilbert from The Radio Mall, December 9, 2014 at 2:59 p.m.

    Oh please, Adam... The world is ALWAYS burning. There was a time when no president had ever even been seen on a TV, until there was one. I'm guessing that you just don't get the joke.

  4. Robert Lion from Viamedia Inc., December 9, 2014 at 3:02 p.m.

    Nixon offered to "Sock It To ME" on Laugh In, kids...

  5. Judy Langer from Langer Qualitative, December 9, 2014 at 3:10 p.m.

    Am I reading Media Post or Fox News? The President did nothing undignified and is certainly not the first president to appear on a comedy show. (Remember R. Nixon?) Getting the word out to young people is not only fine but should be appreciated by media "experts."

  6. Eric Dahlquist from vista group, December 9, 2014 at 3:23 p.m.

    I think it's OK for him to have some fun given the stress of the job.

  7. Norman Birnbach from Birnbach Communications, December 9, 2014 at 3:42 p.m.

    Citing Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, etc. ignores how much the media environment has changed in half a century. And if (now not-so-dominant) networks don't set aside time for presidential addresses, then presidents need to more actively engage with the public. That's what we tell our clients to do. By the way, presidents (including G.W. Bush) have always conducted interviews with friendly reporters/programs. It's called reaching out to your base.

  8. Brad Falk from OOH Sales, December 9, 2014 at 3:43 p.m.

    Your minority is up to two people Adam. We have American citizens being beheaded around the world, our economy still sucks (that is reality, not news reports), race relations are at a 20 yr. low and the world view of the USA is that we are a joke. All that and he runs to a comedy show?! We needed a strong leader, we got a community organizer who organized only one thing....his inner circle. We got a shell of man of reads a great teleprompter and has not had an original thought to lead our country forward since he took office.

  9. Judy Langer from Langer Qualitative, December 9, 2014 at 3:55 p.m.

    Don't you think it's time to ditch the Teleprompter line about Obama? He has spoken many times without one and been more than fine. And at least he doesn't write notes for himself on his hand. You're welcome to hate Obama for his policies but these silly criticisms are inappropriate.

  10. Martin Pratt from Unidad Solutions for Marketing and Media, December 9, 2014 at 3:57 p.m.

    You must have hated GWB because he made joke a lot and many times they were hugely viewed as inappropriate. In fact many times in his first administration i felt the liberal media purposely showed his smile but then after Iraq and Katrina i realized he was a jokester and couldnt help himself. I feel conflicted because this is the generation of the #Hashtag and 8 sec attention span so that show is one of this generation media outlets much like 60 Mins or Dick Cavett was 40 years ago; a lot of people get their news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Buuuuttt...personally i would not have chosen Colbert i would have shot a video wishing him well and maybe one last zinger vs a whole segment. With that said from a marketing pov - Obama won watch the approval numbers spike which is what he is supposed to do for his party.

  11. Chuck Lantz from, network, December 9, 2014 at 5:19 p.m.

    If the President had been personally responsible for all the problems the author cited, appearing on the Colbert show would probably be less than appropriate. But since he wasn't, and isn't, his appearance was a nice, light, brief and earthy base-touch, ... unless you're a knee-jerk reactionary Fox fan, who firmly believes that anything Obama does is worthy of impeachment, a long prison term and exile.

  12. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, December 9, 2014 at 5:24 p.m.

    Harry S. Truman used to regularly play the piano for entertainment, and laugh it up with some salty language with his guests and friends. But, that was before TV, or this blog. So it never really happened.

  13. Mike Mellon from Retired TV research guru, December 9, 2014 at 6:33 p.m.

    It is nice to see that anyone can have an opinion, no matter how stupid it may be.

  14. David Marans from ARF, December 9, 2014 at 7:43 p.m.

    Are you kidding, bring back Ed Martin. This was an offensive and silly attack on President. Obama, and one filled with errors. JFK appeared with Jack Paar. As mentioned, Nixon on Laugh-In and countless others on an array of lighter TV environments.

  15. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, December 10, 2014 at 11:09 a.m.

    Go ahead. Ask people HOW government works, the mechanics, from how people get elected to how a law is made or not made so they can understand why and why not something is getting or not getting done to help them and they world. Odds they do not know or bother to pay attention further than pump and dump stuff on fbeast and twits. If it take a president to show he (still he) knows that words mean actions out of an office to spend a bit of time speaking to the people in a way they may actually listen and drum up interest into the mechanics, then so be it. No doubt the same people would complain a president was to stodgy in his tower of distain if holed up writing treatises.

  16. Neil Ascher from The Midas Exchange, December 10, 2014 at 7:01 p.m.

    I'm disappointed that MediaPost even published this nonsense! Adam, go back to watching FOX News, you'll be much happier.

  17. Pamela Horovitz from Internet Video Archive, December 11, 2014 at 1:26 p.m.

    I think the question of whether or not having a President appear on a satire show is appropriate is worth asking, but I think the mistake was posing the question with all the personal baggage attached. Media has and is changing; audiences and voters views of what they expect from a president have and are changing. Personally, I thought this was a smart appearance, in keeping with pitching young people about the importance of getting health insurance. On that point, he gets high marks. As to the timing, I agree with those who said there is never going to be a time when nothing is going on in the world, and on balance Obama has moved us away from involvement in conflicts.

  18. Margaret Duffy from Duffy Consulting, December 12, 2014 at 2:32 p.m.

    You certainly don't get the joke. Clearly, Mr. Beckman, you have little grasp of presidential history. Please don't write unless you've done some research.

  19. Nicholas Theodore from Self-Employed, December 12, 2014 at 8:29 p.m.

    Adam, You were right in removing my original comment as it was nasty and overboard. I apologize. However, I was angry after reading your article. Most often, things have a way of working out when everyone lightens up, even if one is in a crisis. Why don't we hear more of all the improvements since President Obama took office? And, yes Adam, I do believe in freedom of speech and expression, but sometimes with a caveat.

  20. Kathy Gill from University of Washington, December 15, 2014 at 7:19 a.m.

    1. Sen. John Kennedy was on Jack Paar's Tonight Show in 1959 as part of the 1960 presidential campaign.

    2. Nixon appeared on Jack Paar's Tonight Show (after losing California's governor's race). And he was on Laugh-in in 1968 while running for President against Humphrey.

    3. President Ford appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1976.

    4. Presidential Clinton appeared on Arsenio and MTV in 1992.

    5. President Bush appeared on Oprah and Letterman in 2000, as well as Dr. Phil and Fishing With Roland Martin in 2004.

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