Barack Obama on Leno's "Tonight Show": He'll Beat Even JFK to the Late Night Circuit

Ike won an Emmy and Ford cameo'd on "Saturday Night Live."

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Despite what you may have heard, JFK did not, as a sitting president, beat Barack Obama to the late night television talk show circuit. So far as I can tell (with the help of the invaluable Internet Movie DataBase), Obama's Tonight Show appearance will indeed make him the first sitting president to appear on such a television show.

While Kennedy did appear on Jack Paar's Tonight Show, he did so as a candidate in 1960, not as president. (We can rely not only on IMDB for this—my colleague Andrew Burt checked in with historian Robert Dallek and the JFK Library.)

That's not to say that sitting presidents have not appeared on television shows. Dwight Eisenhower is listed as being one of many people appearing in a variety show called Producers' Showcase in December 1954; the following year he appeared on The Colgate Comedy Hour, kicking off Armed Forces Week along with other guests like Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. In 1958, he made a pre-filmed appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, appealing for contributions to the United Fund. In all of these cases the shows were prime time, not late night. And if you think Ike was on TV a lot, consider that he is the only president to have won an Emmy (in 1956, for his use and encouragement of television).

In addition to appearing on Paar's show during the campaign, JFK appeared in his wife's famous "Tour of the White House" and in a one-hour taped salute to cancer research.

Richard Nixon was of course on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In as a candidate in 1968 and scored points with the public for delivering the show's trademark "sock it to me" line. But while Tricky is listed on IMDB as having appeared on Laugh-In twice as president and Johnny Carson's Tonight Show once, these listings appear spurious. "It seems to be one of those Nixon urban myths, but we have no evidence that he was ever on the Tonight Show," said Greg Cumming, the supervisory archivist at the Nixon Library out in California. "And the appearance on Laugh-In was in the 1968 presidential campaign."

Gerald Ford was the first president skewered by Saturday Night Live—but had the good humor to tape a couple of spots lampooning himself for the show.

Subsequent presidents wised up. As my colleague Mary Kate Cary notes, candidates have made appearances on like shows, but Obama will be blazing a more or less new trail.

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