Surviving that late night comedy show appearance

A couple of weeks ago, after endless promos touting stories about “the cheaper alternative to Botox” on the local 10 pm news, I switched in desperation to Comedy Central. This turned out to be the night Jon Stewart launched into his now-famous tirade against Rick Santelli and CNBC (http://tinyurl.com/aj5u9p) that culminated on March 12 with the mesmerizing smack down between Jon Stewart and CNBC Mad Money host Jim Cramer. I also caught Colbert interviewing a hapless NASA nerd about a satellite naming contest, and immediately became a Comedy Central late night fan.

All this got me to thinking—when did comedy replace “serious” news? And if you’re summoned to appear on one of these shows, how do you prepare? Traditional media training won’t suffice. But more on that later….

Why should public figures appear on late night comedy shows? For one thing, it’s a chance to speak directly to the American people. A study by George Mason University revealed that candidate George Bush actually had more talk time in one appearance on Letterman during the 2000 campaign than from an entire month of the CBS Evening News stories. In this age of targeted campaigning in battleground states, comedy shows are often the only way to reach a national audience. And a study presented at the 2006 annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association (http://tinyurl.com/cu75pr ) indicated that late night comedy appearances can actually enhance a candidate’s image in ways that defy conventional wisdom.

But are these viewers the people you want to reach?

A Pew Research Center study released in 2007 (http://tinyurl.com/6knn6k) first measured public knowledge on a variety of issues, from the Iraq war to the Supreme Court to the name of one’s governor. Pew categorized the respondents into three fairly evenly distributed groups it labeled “High Knowledge,” “Medium Knowledge,” and “Low Knowledge.”

Pew also studied knowledge levels by news source, and found that regular viewers of The Daily Show/The Colbert Report had the highest knowledge level at 54%. This tied with regular readers of major newspaper websites, and was slightly above that of viewers of Jim Lehrer, Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. Their knowledge levels were way ahead of daily newspaper readers and viewers of broadcast news and CNN.

In other words, viewers of late night comedy shows are not dolts.

I bring this up because while watching Cramer eat crow with Jon Stewart (after making pie with Martha Stewart earlier the same day) and feeling mighty bad for that unprepared NASA stiff, I realized that we need a new category of media training to prepare our clients for: The Late Night Comedy Show Interview.

In that vein, I offer my Twelve Things to consider before appearing on a late night comedy show. Feel free to add yours in the comments below.

1. Don’t think for one nanosecond that “This is only a comedian.” Good comedians are arguably better prepared, quicker thinking and more issue-savvy than many journalists—they have to be, because their audiences expect it. You can’t pull anything over on these folks—they have a whole staff of researchers and writers on their side, working to make them look good and get high ratings. And if the interviewer has recently targeted you for ridicule, he/she will be twice as well-prepared.

2. Show up. And above all, don’t say you’ll be there and then back out at the last minute. Do you want to get treated the way Letterman treated John McCain for weeks and then TO HIS FACE once he did show up? Do you then want the blogosphere and TV reviewers commenting on the comedian’s comments about you? Comedians have a long memory, and video recording methods even longer.

3. Study clips (or transcripts) of the interviewer’s previous mentions of you—monologues, skits, comments at the desk, whatever, to get a feel for what he/she finds odd, funny or controversial. If he/she refers to a particular news story, be sure to read it (or watch it) as well. It can help you anticipate questions and find ways of defending yourself without being confrontational.

4. Check out blogs and reviews of the comedian, especially if he/she has recently gone off on a tirade about you or your organization. Knowing what others are saying about this individual could give you a clue to questions and even provide you defensive ammunition. And while you’re at it, be sure you know what bloggers and the news media are saying about you.

5. Study appearances by other similar guests on that interviewer’s program. If you are a politician, watch clips of other politicians, especially if they are your opponents. If you are a controversial business figure or pundit, watch your peers. If you are an entertainer with “issues” then you better watch interviews with other entertainers in the same boat. Knowing how this interviewer treats people will help you anticipate questions without self-destructing.

6. Be aware of anything you may have said on tape that can be used against you, and don’t ever deny you said something. You could possibly get away with it in the days before tape and digital playback, but not now. You may have to sit there and watch yourself say what you just denied saying, just as Cramer did on Stewart’s show. (http://tinyurl.com/aa59b5 ) Be careful about the “that was out of context” defense too—it comes across as lame, and you may end up watching the tape of the full context.

7. Try also to avoid “I don’t recall saying that” even if you have total amnesia. We’ve seen too many people lie to Congress using that line, and late night audiences, like comedy show hosts, are cynical at best.

8. Be prepared for snappy comments about EVERYTHING. Your outfit. Your hair. Who’s waiting in the greenroom for you. On a comedy show, everything is fair game.

9. Don’t try too hard to be funny. Chances are, the situation that got you invited to be on this show isn’t funny in and of itself. It may even be outrageous or enraging. People can find humor in most anything (except the Holocaust, 9/11 and child molestation) but don’t push it too far. You also don’t want to look like you’re trying to be funnier than the interviewer. He/she is the one that’s getting paid to be funny, not you.

10. You can take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. There’s a good chance the interviewer actually finds something to like about you but is attacking the situation you’ve gotten into, or some boneheaded thing you did or said, not you as a person. Letterman had his way with Rod Blagojevich, and the former governor rolled with the punches. (http://tinyurl.com/cjrgjd)

11. Be gracious. Blagojevich was, and Letterman all but called him a liar to his face. Jon Stewart humiliated Cramer, but Cramer remained polite. Thank the host for having you on, even if your first impulse is to run off the set in tears. There will be somebody in the audience (besides your mother) who is actually pulling for you. Don’t tick them off too by being a jerk.

12. And afterwards, don’t have your publicist issue a statement about how you felt ambushed or treated unfairly. And don’t whine to your colleagues about it—Cramer reportedly told colleagues at CNBC he felt “blindsided” by Stewart’s “hostile approach.” (Oh yeah? Hey, Cramer, what made you think he was going to be friendly?)

Remember, the interviewer is a comedian who is usually funny because he/she makes a living pointing out the absurdities in life. They’ve heavily promoted your appearance on the show, are bonded with the audience which will already have an opinion about you and be anticipating some discomfort on your part. It’s become a national pastime to watch the powerful squirm. Don’t act surprised when this happens, and definitely don’t complain about it. That will only provide fodder for the next round of comic jabs and more reasons for bloggers and reviewers and other interviewers to pillory you until somebody else does something worse. And even then it might not stop.

(c) Samra Jones Bufkins 3/17/09.