Barack Obama Made Late Night History 15 Years Ago This Week

Fifteen years ago this week, history was made when a sitting U.S. President appeared on a late-night talk show for the first time. Given how synonymous late-night TV and politics can be, it may surprise you that this didn’t occur before March 19, 2009, when then-President Barack Obama appeared on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show as his sole guest of the night (aside from a musical performance by Garth Brooks).

Sure, presidential candidates have made the rounds on talk shows—and sketch shows—for decades, but sitting down for an interview on a late-night show didn’t always seem like an appropriate move for a commander-in-chief. Once in office, they’re bound to have serious pressing questions to answer—topics that are more appropriately addressed on a nightly newscast than a chat show, where it’s less likely to generate an analytical discussion with the host.

That’s probably why Obama chose Leno’s Tonight Show as the host to break this late night seal. It’s no secret that Leno played it safe politically, and late night in general was more about political quips than political analysis at the time. But even so, Obama’s appearance ended up backfiring. Obama was met with backlash after equating his bowling score to something from the Special Olympics, and later had to apologize.

The controversy didn’t deter him, though. The 45th President of the United States made at least 10 late-night TV appearance over the course of his presidency. He even “Slow-Jammed the News” with Jimmy Fallon while in office. And with the modern era’s lineup of politically opinionated humorists—Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, a Daily Show that once again includes Jon Stewart—it’s no stretch to say that late night has become one of THE places for political discussion.

Of course, late night’s presidential booking momentum died during the Trump presidency. The former president mostly avoided formal sit-down interviews during his time in office, and he certainly wasn’t going to make an exception for one of the comedy shows that were skewering him on a nightly basis. Then came President Joe Biden, who has similarly granted few long-form interviews as he faces allegations of cognitive decline.

Still, President Biden has made some time for late-night TV. In 2021, he appeared remotely on NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and late last month, made a surprise appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers to celebrate the program’s 10-year anniversary. (Biden was a guest on Meyers’ first episode, as vice president.) Both times he was given the second slot, after Amy Poehler.

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