It seemed like a curious choice.
Jay Leno, the former Tonight Show host, is scheduled to headline a House and Senate Republican retreat in Hershey, Pennsylvania, this week. The conservative getaway, which will focus on immigration, budget, and health care policy, is also set to feature former British prime minister Tony Blair—a politician Leno once mocked on his old show.
But the 64-year-old comedian’s remarks aren’t intended to be partisan. A longtime supporter of military nonprofits and service members, he’s headed to Hershey to talk about military families, veterans, and his experiences on USO comedy tours.
So Leno loves the troops. Lots of celebrities, liberal and conservative, like expressing their love for troops. But Leno has enjoyed a degree of support among conservative audiences that many of his contemporaries in late-night and stand-up comedy do not. He is a “GOP favorite” to the point where some suspect him of being a secret right-winger. “Methinks Jay Leno is a closet conservative/libertarian,” Daniel J. Mitchell wrote on Townhall.com. Breitbart’s Christian Toto called him the “last fair, balanced late night host.” “Jay Leno: new hero of the Republican Party,” Vice eye-rolled. “[NBC] will send him to a reeducation camp for required therapy”, Fox News host Greg Gutfeld joked during a discussion of Leno’s string of Tonight Show monologues targeting President Obama.
It’s no mystery why some Republicans embrace Jay Leno. He isn’t a conservative firebrand like, say, James Woods or Ted Nugent. But he has made a conscious effort not to alienate potential right-leaning fans. “Democrats and Republicans are interesting, because Republicans really laugh at themselves more,” he told David Gregory in 2012.
“It’s Jay Leno! Everybody would love to hear from him,” a House GOP aide involved in planning this week’s retreat told The Daily Beast. “I’m sure he’ll bring his own humor and flavor to this [subject]…We’re really excited to have him.”
Much of Leno’s appeal to an aging, conservative audience appears to come from his desire not to rock the boat. His comedy these days is not renowned for its edge, much less its political edge, and many of his fellow comedians never forgave him for selling out and going blandly mainstream with The Tonight Show. (His infamous Tonight Show coup d’état against Conan O’Brien also didn’t help his standing with the comic elite and younger viewers.)
“You always put the joke first, and whatever you have to say second,” Leno said on Real Time with Bill Maher last week, when asked about how his politics were supposedly difficult to nail down.
Despite all this, Leno’s politics fit squarely on the center-left.
“I don’t like them not to like me for the wrong reason,” the comic said in an interview with Nikki Finke in 2004. “If someone says, ‘I don’t like Jay Leno because he’s a conservative,’ I call him and I go, ‘I’m not conservative. I’ve never voted that way in my life. Where do you get that from?’ I explain my position, and there’s not much more I can do. When my wife got involved in helping the women in Afghanistan, I took a lot of flack for that for my obvious left-wing leanings. ‘Leno and his left-wing buddies helping Afghanistan rather than the children here.’ I got beat up for weeks for that.”
According to his publicist, Leno’s schedule “precludes him from doing any interviews” prior to the big retreat. But we can safely assume that his speech before the Republican lawmakers will include lots of agreeable comments about America’s men and women in uniform—and perhaps a few lighthearted swipes at Obamacare, too.