Michelle Obama, as most prominent politicians are these days, is a regular on the late-night talk show circuit. Kimmel, Fallon, Colbert (the new one), Colbert (the old one) … she’s done them all. The appearances are one more subsidiary duty of contemporary First Ladyhood that Obama has perfected: She has become, in her eight years as FLOTUS, extremely adept at the art of performative small talk.
So it was no surprise that Obama’s most recent late-night appearance, on the Late Show With Stephen Colbert, was a resounding—and charming—success. The First Lady teased Colbert, calling him “Steve” and informing him that “if you don’t know what swag is, Steve, you definitely don’t have it.” She shared her pitch-perfect imitation of her husband. (During a family dinner: “I’m glad you asked. Let me just answer that in three points. One. And then One A. And B.”) She talked about her love for Lemonade, and for its creator. (Beyoncé, she insisted, is “just a low-key lady. So we have a lot in common in that way.”)
The most striking element of her Colbert appearance, though, didn’t involve the traditional interview segment. It didn’t involve Michelle Obama, talking about being Michelle Obama. It involved instead … Michelle Obama, acting. Michelle Obama, engaging in sketch comedy.
Before the First Lady came out for her traditional interview, the Late Show aired a pre-taped segment: one roughly premised on the advocacy work that Obama has done on behalf of children, in the U.S. and elsewhere. The two were playing SNL-style characters: kids named, yep, Michelle and Stephen.
The scene was set … in a blanket fort.
In the segment—the set was complete with some FLOTUS-friendly bowls of broccoli and carrot sticks—the two “kids” engaged in the kind of dreamy, low-stakes banter that is the stuff of the traditional slumber party.
Michelle: Hey, Stephen, if you got stuck on a desert island with one famous person, who’d you pick?
Stephen: Oh, I’d pick the president. How about you?
Stephen: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, can I change to Beyoncé?
Michelle: No, she’s mine.
Stephen: Can I visit?
Michelle: Hey, Stephen, what do you think adults do all day while we’re at school?
Stephen: They go to work.
Michelle: Well, what do they do at work?
Stephen: They drink wine and watch R-rated movies.
Michelle: Hey. What do you want to be when you grow up?
Stephen: Oh, I think I want to go to Harvard, and be a lawyer, and a writer, and an advocate for nutrition and military families, and girls’ education. What about you?
Michelle: I want to be Joe Biden. [She paused.] Or a pirate!
Stephen: Or a pirate Joe Biden! Arrrrgh, get off me train.
Stephen: Hey, hey, Michelle? Do you think fruits and vegetables have feelings?
Michelle: Well, gosh, I hope not. I eat way too many of them.
Stephen: Yeah. They’re great…. Hey, did you know that if you eat too many carrots, you turn orange?
Stephen: Yeah. And if you turn really orange, you have to start saying really crazy things and run for president.
It went on like this—the comedian and the First Lady, bantering and being weird and only roughly hinting at the political context in which the segment was operating. Both of them playing not themselves, but sketch-comedic versions of themselves.
At one point, Colbert engaged in that classic sleepover move—putting a flashlight under his face, in the name of spoooookiness—and the First Lady responded, in perfect tween-girl cadence: “Don’t DO that! It’s not funny!”
And then, to drive the point home: She slapped him. Pretty hard! And Colbert seemed not to have expected Obama’s physical ad-lib. He looked, actually, kind of shocked. So shocked that he laughed, breaking character. Or, well, “character.”
And why wouldn’t he lose himself in all that? Why wouldn’t he laugh? The late-night host, after all, had just been slapped by the First Lady of the United States as the two of them, playing children, lay side-by-side in a blanket fort. It was absurd.
It was also, for Obama—despite the absurdity, and because of it—extremely politically savvy. As my colleague Spencer Kornhaber wrote, after Michelle lent her person and her singing voice to a segment of James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke”:
The Obamas have had a closer, more symbiotic relationship with pop culture than any first family before them. The risks and rewards of remaining a staple on the talk-show circuit, or of starting up a Snapchat account, or of making rappers and pop singers regular White House visitors, are obvious: cultural buzz can be political power, but one wrong move and embarrassment shall be swift. Yet memorable media mishaps have been mostly absent for the last two terms. As I argued around the time of the Hamilton cast’s White House appearance, the Obamas exercise a lot of strategic restraint in these matters. Always, they try to make pop-culture serve them, rather than the other way around.
Here is yet one more way that pop culture is serving the Obamas. Politicians appear on late-night talk shows, after all, to offer a kind of obeisance to the American public: I will banter, essentially, because you enjoy seeing me make awkward small talk. But the First Lady was flipping the script. She was seeing the mandate for humanizing banter, and raising it: She was acting. She was sketch-comedy-ing. She was having fun.
And yet, as with “Carpool Karaoke”—as, indeed, with pretty much every appearance Obama makes on the late-night circuit—there was also an agenda. The First Lady and the Late Show host were, after all, eating carrots (#letsmove!). They were celebrating children (#letgirlslearn). They were mocking Donald Trump (#imwithher). They were selling several political messages … from, delightfully and revealingly, the inside of a televised blanket fort.