Was Mitt Romney Funny on Jay Leno?

Appearing on the late-night comedian's show for the first time this campaign, Romney demonstrated the mix of gravitas and relatability we demand from our leaders.

A few weeks ago, I went out on a limb and claimed that Mitt Romney had a sense of humor. This was controversial, and ever since, I've found myself the unofficial arbiter of Romney's attempts at humor. Let me clarify: I never meant to claim that Romney had a promising fallback career on the comedy circuit, only that, as politicians go, he had a real and unappreciated wit. Nor did I intend to assert that Romney is funny all the time. Some things, like "fell on da butt in Dubuque" or "no plates like chrome for the hollandaise," are beyond the pale. I have a weakness for puns, and even I wouldn't let those jokes out in public. (Then there's stuff like bringing up your friends who own NFL teams -- that's not even a joke. That's just a boneheaded thing to say.)

On Tuesday night, Romney went on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno for the first time in his current presidential campaign. So, was he funny?

Not really. He didn't make me laugh out loud. But that's probably a good thing. In the car on the way to the studio, Romney told an aide his handlers had advised him not to try to be funny. "I'm rarely funny on purpose," he noted.

Romney's campaign, after all, didn't schedule him on a late-night comedy show so he could get off a couple of edgy zingers about Lindsay Lohan. He was there to play the loose but serious straight man to Leno's jokester -- to demonstrate that bizarre and mostly unattainable mix of gravitas and relatability we demand from our leaders. And on that scale, Romney did pretty well.

Leno conducted a mostly serious interview that lingered on tax policy, foreign affairs and health-care reform, and Romney got through these debates without injury. His explications of tax policy were number-heavy but clear, drawing applause from the audience. On health care, he suffered a bit as he went into bean-counter mode on issues that demanded compassion instead. In particular, he said he'd tell a 45-year-old with heart disease who hadn't been previously insured, "Hey, guys, we can't play the game like that. You've got to get insurance when you're well." Actuarially, this is the fundamental logic behind the case for mandates, but phrased this way -- a wealthy politician telling a poor sick person he was out of luck because he'd "played the game" wrong -- it sounded terribly callous.

He did try, modestly, to be funny, and when he did, it was low-key and unscripted. There were no canned one-liners, thank goodness, just flashes of sarcasm and self-deprecation. Leno, for example, began by asking him why the campaign has revolved less around serious issues than around things we didn't know were active American political debates, like pornography. "Did you ever think that we'd be talking about porn?" Leno said. "I mean, with all the other things in this election."

"I didn't know we were talking about porn," Romney deadpanned.

"Well, no, we're not talking about porn," Leno said. "Rick Santorum is talking about porn."

At another point, Leno trapped Romney in that eternal cliche of boring interviews, the word-association game. Romney, unable to help himself, had described New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as "indomitable," setting himself up for a round of aren't-we-fancy ribbing. "I'll try for smaller words," he finally said, with a barely concealed bite.

As a partisan of the multisyllabic myself, I smirked in sympathy. Also rather cutting: Romney's suggestion that he would choose David Letterman as his running mate to "help us both out" by removing a Leno rival. And then there was Romney's association with Donald Trump: "Huge." Trump has endorsed Romney, so Romney is supposed to pretend to take him seriously, but that seemed a sly nod at the ridiculous Trump persona of the SNL "Dominio's" parody.

Along the same line, his association for Santorum, to whom he was otherwise courteous, was "press secretary" -- either a suggestion that Santorum could use one to speak for him sometimes, or an implication that that's the highest rank Santorum would attain in a Romney administration.

Either way -- not hilarious. But pretty funny for a politician.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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