Jacinda Ardern’s US late-night interview eschewed the shtick of John Key’s Letterman stand-up in favour of a more refined performance, but the Prime Minister still made sure to plug New Zealand as a tourist destination – and to push for a Trump tariff exemption. Sam Sachdeva was in the Late Show crowd and reports on her appearance.

An unmarried mother, doing her best to break through glass ceilings in a male-dominated profession.

That description could technically apply to either of Late Show host Stephen Colbert’s guests on his midweek show.

The first to take a seat was Candice Bergen, whose starring role in the eponymous 1990s show Murphy Brown was heralded at the time for tackling the political issues of the day head on (in a rebooted version being released this year for the Donald Trump era, Brown gets in a Twitter war with the US President).

But it was Jacinda Ardern’s appearance after Bergen which will be of the greatest interest to New Zealanders, a rare chance to plug New Zealand to an audience of over three million people.

John Key’s appearance on the David Letterman-hosted Late Show in 2009, reading out a top 10 list of reasons to visit New Zealand, elicited a predictably polarising response.

His supporters cited the economic value for the tourism market, while his critics saw it as cringeworthy; for her part, Ardern defended his appearance to travelling media shortly before her own cameo, praising his “deadpan delivery”.

Disco cathedral

But the question now was how the current Prime Minister would fare in the Ed Sullivan Theater, a cosy space resembling a disco cathedral inside with stained-glass windows, multi-coloured lights and a dome with projected pictures (in Ardern’s honour, there were kiwi of both the fruit and bird variety).

After the crowd was warmed up, Colbert sprinted out and bounded around the stage, eventually pausing to apologise for the delayed start. Trump’s decision to hold a press conference, only his fourth since taking office, to discuss Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination forced the show’s writers to throw out most of his opening monologue and start again.

After predictably withering comedy and an interview with Bergen, it was time for Ardern, introduced by Colbert as “the biggest thing to hit New Zealand since Frodo dropped the ring into Mount Doom”.

Coming out to warm applause, Ardern showed a sense of self-deprecating wit when talking about her time in New York volunteering in soup kitchens and working in aged care facilities: “Very earnest things, very earnest things.”

Colbert ran through the Prime Minister’s CV, with a burst of applause at the news she was currently the youngest female leader in the world.

That was followed by a predictable coo as the host held up a photo of Ardern with her daughter Neve – backstage for her mother’s appearance – on the floor of the UN General Assembly.

Ardern dodged a question about Trump’s UN speech, but was quick to plug New Zealand as a tourist destination. Photo: Scott Kowalchyk/CBS.

Then it was time for a trickier topic, as Colbert asked for her thoughts on the laughter which greeted Trump’s speech to the UN, specifically the claim his administration had achieved more in two years than any other in American history.

“Are you trying to create a diplomatic incident here?” Ardern exclaimed.

Her explanation? The first laugh was “a spontaneous murmur”, and the second, louder outburst with, not at, the president.

“And you joined in?” Colbert asked. “I observed,” Ardern replied – a suitably diplomatic answer, as the host acknowledged.

In a pivot that Ardern’s team presumably orchestrated, he then asked her about the steel and aluminium tariffs imposed by the US and whether New Zealand had secured an exemption.

“Some of us auditioned [for Lord of the Rings] but weren’t successful.”

She confirmed we had not, and said she had raised it with Trump at a reception he hosted – before Gayford knocked over a flagpole as they were posing for a photo, quickly picking up the metal pole in a bid to undo the damage.

“I’m surprised no-one leapt on him at that point, because it looked like a weapon,” Ardern quipped.

Having predicted in advance that Colbert, an avid Lord of the Rings fan, would quiz her about the film series, Ardern expressed mock offence at the suggestion all Kiwis had appeared on screen.

“Some of us auditioned but weren’t successful,” she said, nodding when Colbert asked her if that had been the case for her.

A push for NZ tourism

Then came the unsubtle push for Brand New Zealand: Ardern revealed Colbert had been admitted as a “citizen” of Hobbiton, and could fly to New Zealand to pick up the commemorative mug with “nice and easy” direct flights from Chicago as of November.

Shane Jones may not be happy with the promotional work for Air New Zealand, but the airline and tourism bosses back home will likely be delighted with the plug for international visitors.

Ardern reiterated her acceptance of a request from the Flight of the Conchords – on The Late Show earlier in the week – for a dinner invite, saying they were welcome to come around if they promised to pick her up from the airport.

Ardern said she had “stopped and had conversations in the most awkward of situations – maternity bra shopping…”

In a flash, the interview was over: Colbert thanked her for appearing, asking if he could call her by her first name.

Of course, she replied, adding she was often called Jacinda by Kiwis and had “stopped and had conversations in the most awkward of situations – maternity bra shopping…”

After some small talk and a final handshake, Ardern disappeared behind the curtain to find her daughter and prepare for a far more sober occasion – her speech to the UN General Assembly on Friday (NZT), which she is still fine-tuning.

“I hope everyone laughs,” Colbert jokingly offered – she will hope that’s not the case, and may gain some confidence from what felt in the studio like an assured TV appearance.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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