The Celebrification of Politics


Daniel Gulotta

Celebrification (n, informal) The introduction of celebrity as a factor in some field or discipline.


It is September 25th, 2015- the premiere of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.  Legendary comedian David Letterman led the show’s helm for nearly 20 years in CBS’s answer for The Tonight Show. Now, Comedy Central comedian and political satirist, Stephen Colbert, who had spent years in character as a Bill O’Reilly-esque talking-head on The Colbert Report, was set to take over a late night program for a far more mainstream audience. At first, all seemed typical for an opening night- a cold open, a monologue, and the first guest. 

Colbert started  with starpower, bringing out world famous actor, George Clooney. This is a familiar strategy to draw the audience in: Letterman began with Bill Murray and Billy Joel, Jay Leno opened up The Tonight Show accompanied by Billy Crystal, and Conan O’Brien brought out Will Ferell for his rendition of the franchise. But then something strange happened. After Colbert finished his interview with Clooney, he brought out his second guest- former Florida Governor, Jeb Bush? What was a conservative politician who had been out of a job for almost a decade (and apparently lacking in charisma, according to then-candidate Donald Trump) doing on the premiere episode of a new late night television show? 

First of all, Colbert’s original show, along with many other contemporary late night shows, typically lent itself far more to a liberal audience. Bush, a Republican frontrunner at the time, certainly would not be seen as an ultimate crowdpleaser. Further, late night shows are for easy comedy as adults fall asleep, a time for actors to schmooze with other celebrities and promote their new shows or movies. Yet, Colbert presented  “low energy Jeb” to many people still unfamiliar with his comedic work. This would turn out to be no aberration for Colbert, in fact, it was a tone setter. During his first four years on air, Colbert featured a remarkable number of politicians, giving thirty-five air spaces for Senators, six for governors, and fourteen for House Representatives along with many other cabinet members and party representatives. To provide a frame of reference, in the second incarnation of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, from 2009- 2014, Leno gave air time to just one Senator and three governors.  

Why? Why would the ultra-competitive network executives and producers of late night television let their new star host invite an endless string of politicians to his show? To inform Americans? No, that is  ostensibly the job of the regional nightly news programs that provide a lead in for Colbert’s show. Ratings? That’s more like it. Colbert, with his politically fueled monologues, sketches, and guest stars, has actually catapulted himself to the “King of Late Night”, attracting more viewers than former frontrunner Jimmy Fallon, notable for his aversion to political confrontation. It appears more and more Americans are invested in political media. The old playbook is out – shows that feature political programming are rewarded by the public in ways they never were before.  

Late night talk show ratings are not the sole arbiter of this conclusion. Revenue for cable news stations has climbed precipitously, subscriptions for news publications such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have seen dramatic turnarounds, and the 2018 midterms saw record-high voter participation. Political debates now draw in primetime viewing numbers, even for ones that don’t feature Donald Trump. Politics sells like it never has before- it is no longer the conversational and media third rail that keep it from the forefront of our programming gatekeepers.  

Political media’s rise to prominence has coincided with the slow demise of former dominant entertainment forms. While more and more people attend political rallies, substantially less people attend or watch sporting events or shop at malls than ever before. While viewership for cable-news debates and townhalls are on the rise, movie ticket sales have fallen and network shows have dropped in popularity. Washington D.C. is not the new Hollywood nor is politics a replacement for your favorite sports team; still, it is clear that politics and political media has been immune to the decline in popularity that has plagued some more traditional forms of popular media and entertainment.  

It would be far from a novel claim to say that Donald Trump’s election represented a monumental change to the nature of the politician-celebrity relationship- a celebrity has become a politician in a consequential office. Donald Trump rode the strength of his celebrity and name recognition to leave a field of long-serving and internally-respected group of Republican politicians in the dust. Now, with a group of Democratic challengers- featuring several high-profile Senators and a former Vice President, all of whom polling slightly ahead of the incumbent- it may be easy to assume that this whole thing ends with Trump’s presidency. After all, if there is no longer a celebrity in the White House, wouldn’t that be the end of the marriage of popular media and politics. Yet, these trends, both in the increasing participation in politics and declined participation in other entertainment sources, have predated Trump’s inauguration. The mistake is looking at Trump’s coronation as a singular incident and not another step in the increasing overlap between politics and entertainment, celebrities and politicians, partisanship and fandom.

People are not simply drawn to Trump coverage, they are willing to wait in line for Stephen Colbert to introduce “special guest”, Representative of Illinois 16th district, Adam Kinzinger, a politician with little national prominence or Washington clout. It would be unfathomable to think Jay Leno would ever even entertain the idea of including such a guest in 1999 or even 2009. In 2019, Representative Kinzinger took a spot on the couch that just a few years ago would have been a lock for a T.V. actor or A-list sports figure.  

Outside of Trump’s rise to power is seemingly a multitude of factors that has made people less interested in sports, shopping at malls, movies, and network dramas and more invested in popular political coverage. Trump’s election was not the beginning of the “celebrification” of politics, it was another step in its continued growth. In other words, celebrities have not just replaced our politicians, politicians have replaced our celebrities.