By Ken Tucker
Updated December 19, 2019 at 11:24 PM EST

It was President Barack Obama, not Jay Leno, who got the biggest laugh on The Tonight Show. In a remark that no doubt thrills fans of the country’s favorite karaoke show, Obama remarked that Washington is “a bit like American Idol — and everyone is Simon Cowell.”

Granted, it wasn’t difficult for the President to beat Leno at his own game, given that the Tonight host had just finished a monologue that included a lame yuk about increased backstage security: “It’s still less people than when we have Mariah Carey on.”

The President’s Tonight Show segments featured lots of long, serious answers to softball questions — or even non-questions: “Tell people what happened” was Leno’s way of non-grilling Obama about the ongoing disaster of AIG and its controversial bonuses. The President was able to lay out his policies as we’ve heard them before. It’s not Leno’s job to question the President more closely, you say? Well, then The Tonight Show should have kept the subject matter limited to the choice of Presidential dog, basketball, and ultra-Leno questions like, “How cool is it to fly in Air Force One?”

Obama and Leno joked about his bowling game. When Obama said he recently bowled a score of 129 and Leno chided him for such a low result, the President tossed off a remark some might consider, um, politically incorrect: “That was like the Special Olympics or something.” (Earlier in the evening, appearing on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, another late-night host, Craig Ferguson, said gently that this was the kind of joke “you beg them to edit out” before broadcast.)

In general, however, this was the kind of Presidential appearance that did what it was intended to do, on the President’s end, anyway: it aimed to reassure Leno’s vast audience, to give comfort, to enable viewers to believe we can come through the present hard times with a leader who seems confident. In that sense, it was the TV equivalent of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats.” The Leno interview didn’t set the airwaves ablaze. It gave off a gentle glow. And it was left to Obama to make the night’s sharpest remark, commenting on bandleader Kevin Eubanks making a rare appearance in a suit: “He looks like Secret Service,” said the President, not missing a beat.

What did you think of President Obama’s Tonight Show appearance?