Following his wildly misguided softball campaign season interview with then-candidate Donald Trump, in which the now-President’s hair was ruffled like a cheeky toddler’s, The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon saw the tides turn. After years of top ratings success and a near million viewers lead over his closest competitor Stephen Colbert, audiences turned away from his seemingly apolitical frivolity and sought out a late-night host with some opinions. Much has been written on this new age of the late-night wars — the Leno-Letterman feud of the hashtag age — but now, Fallon himself is angling for the sympathy narrative with a profile in the New York Times. Written by Dave Itzkoff, the piece is sharp, often wince-inducing, and exposes more of Fallon than the man probably desired. Instead of taking ownership of his role in perpetuating the softened narrative of a dangerous man - something his colleagues like Colbert have already done - he doubles down on the insistence that his own hurt feelings are the real tragedy.
He defiantly insists “I don’t want to be bullied into not being me, and not doing what I think is funny”, admits the post-Trump interview backlash left him “devastated” and that he was “just trying to have fun”. While he admits regret that he didn’t address the problem on-air, he feels the opportunity to do so has “sailed”, hinting that such closure will never happen. For now, his priority is his feelings. The piece rolls out a variety of sympathetic allies for Fallon, including several from his SNL days. Tina Fey, his former Weekend Update co-anchor, says he’s “not a political comedian”, but as The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum pointed out on Twitter, that’s patently false.
This profile confirms everything I've assumed about the radical callowness of Jimmy Fallon: https://t.co/OX4QtR1byN— emily nussbaum (@emilynussbaum) May 17, 2017
His pre-election sketches involving Vladimir Putin were more likely to paint him as the bastion of masculinity, in comparison to a wimpy, even clingy Barack Obama. He wasn’t above sexist cracks at Hillary Clinton, including one instance where the audience booed and he responded, “It wasn’t that hard of a joke. What’s the big deal?” The mere act of having politicians and Presidential candidates on his show is political, even if all he does is have them participate in children’s birthday party games.
For someone whose reputation is that of a terminally delightful optimist, Fallon can be mean, and he often is, but it’s never read as such because he says it through paroxysms of forced laughter. He allows himself to be used as the happy-faced shield to sexist guests, including a notable instance where he guffawed along with a rather upsetting story from Artie Lange about model Kate Upton. He may be billed as everyone’s best friend, but all too often he’s eager to use that perceived wholesomeness to sanitize the worst of men. As noted by Nussbaum, “it’s less that times have changed than that his weaknesses are lit up”.
The New York Times piece exposes Fallon’s staggering lack of self-awareness. He genuinely doesn’t seem to understand why people are angry at him and the wider context within which he and his show participate. There is no comprehension of the power of comedy, or the history of The Tonight Show, or even the basic act of implicitly endorsing a crypto-fascist by making him seem like a harmless buddy. It’s true that most people in the late-night game were too late to realise the magnitude of Trump’s influence and ultimate toxicity, but they still came around in the end. Colbert expressed regret at his own mishandling of Trump in an interview, and since then he’s come out swinging at every moment. Seth Meyers is savvy enough to know his audience could use a sharp but easily digestible dose of political commentary. Samantha Bee is proudly angry and pointed in her aims. Even the less actively political hosts like Conan O’Brien are aware enough to know that sides must be taken. Fallon prides himself of aggressive shallowness, and laughs no matter how unfunny the joke has gotten.
That’s not to say we couldn’t use some truly apolitical and unabashedly silly fun during these times, because lord knows we definitely do. We could all use a reprieve now and then from the chaos to indulge in some daft giggles over a lip-syncing wrestler or parlour game with your favourite TV stars. It’s all about balance, and Fallon has never figured that out, nor does he seem to want to. His post-election takes on Trump still lack the necessary force to land a punch - and will forever be overshadowed by the hair ruffle witnessed around the world - and his most famous shtick feels tiring. The forced laughter, the constant interruption of guests, the insistence that everything is so great and awesome - it’s theme park style mandatory happiness (fitting since he has his own ride at Universal Studios, one where guests race him around New York and he seems genuinely sad to lose to them).
When Trump appeared on The Tonight Show, he had already guest hosted Saturday Night Live in a grotesque display of strained buffoonery that did little to expose his thin-skinned toxicity. By that point in time, he had already made the infamous “Mexican rapists” comment, among other egregious slurs. Trump had several decades of monstrous behaviour behind him by the time he entered the political ring, and most of this was aided by NBC, from The Apprentice onward. Lorne Michaels, similarly unwilling to acknowledge the impact of Trump’s SNL endorsed appearance, insists audiences could make up their own minds about what happened. This hands-off approach ignores the insidious nature of Trump’s power, and how he leveraged that ignorance for his benefit. It’s true that most people didn’t think Trump was going to win, but that hardly excuses consistent free air-time for an irrevocably poisonous candidate who spewed bigotry at every turn. For Michaels, Fallon and NBC, Trump was a beneficial partner, one who brought in the ratings as desired. Now, SNL are happy to bank in on their renewed relevance in the Trump age, with a gurning Alec Baldwin and gleeful awareness of how much their satire actively pisses off its target. Little is said about their deal with the devil because the ratings speak for themselves. Fallon lacks that luxury.
Whatever happens in the long-term with The Tonight Show, Fallon will probably be secure in his position. The same privileges that will keep him in his job are the ones that shield him from any of the real harm Trump’s government will cause to Americans. He can afford to avoid the crushing realities of his actions and how much hurt this administration will bring to millions of people because it’s never going to truly affect him. Fallon will go where the ratings are, hence his forced leaning into Trump jokes that never read as genuine. If Trump’s popularity points skyrocket next week, he’ll start on the jokes about those clowns in congress and don the fake-tan to have his pal Donald sing Harry Styles songs while The Roots watch on. In the New York Times profile, Fallon admits, “I don’t know what bits we’re going to do, but we’re trying everything.” Anything for a laugh, but it seems that audiences are hungry for something more.