Last week, a video of Jimmy Fallon impersonating Chris Rock in blackface on Saturday Night Live resurfaced, and with it, calls to have his The Tonight Show canceled. A few days later, Fallon apologized on Twitter.
In 2000, while on SNL, I made a terrible decision to do an impersonation of Chris Rock while in blackface. There is no excuse for this.— jimmy fallon (@jimmyfallon) May 26, 2020
I am very sorry for making this unquestionably offensive decision and thank all of you for holding me accountable.
I expected that would be the end of it. This is Jimmy Fallon and The Tonight Show, after all, and while incidences of Blackface have upset political careers, I seriously doubted they’d do any real damage to someone like Fallon, who probably watched that Kenan sketch from last year and thought, “What if I did it on this show? Does it still count?”
In either respect, Fallon appeared on last night’s first episode back since that video resurfaced and delivered what I took to be a genuine, heartfelt apology.
“I had to really examine myself, really examine myself, in the mirror this week because a story came out about me on SNL doing an impression of Chris Rock in blackface—and I was horrified. Not at the fact that people were trying to cancel me or cancel the show, which is scary enough, but the thing that haunted me the most was: How do I say I love this person? I respect this guy more than I respect most humans. I’m not a racist. I don’t feel this way. And instead, what I kept getting advised was to just stay quiet and to not say anything. And that’s the advice because we’re all afraid.”
“So I thought about it and I realized I can’t not say I’m horrified and I’m sorry and I’m embarrassed. What that small gesture did for me was break my own silence. What then I started to do was talk to some experts, some of which are here tonight and this week, and I realized that the silence is the biggest crime that white guys like me and the rest of us are doing—staying silent. We need to say something. We need to keep saying something and we need to stop saying that’s not OK more than just one day on Twitter.”
He also added that, “We cannot try to bury this again. It’s not going to get buried. It’s not going away. We can’t just hope that everyone loves each other. We can’t say, ‘Be the change’ and just sit around tweeting, ‘Be the change. Be the change.’ What is the change? How do I change? How do I do it? What do I do it?’”
Whether people want to accept Fallon’s apology is up to them, obviously. CNN’s Don Lemon, and Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, appeared on the show last night, and for what it’s worth, they accepted Fallon’s apology.
What I’m impressed by is less the apology and more the change in tone. For years, Fallon has positioned himself as the late-night host who remained above the fray, who stayed out of politics. He kind of sort of apologized for having Donald Trump on and normalizing him, but even after recognizing the mistake, Fallon didn’t change the tenor of his show. Instead of engaging with the very real issues our country is confronting, Fallon remained committed to being the happy distraction, even as Stephen Colbert’s more political approach overtook him in the ratings.
That started to change with the pandemic when Fallon basically reinvented himself and his show to deal with the public health crisis, but even then, Fallon — by his own admission — remained on the air to provide a distraction. But this? This is different. This is Fallon confronting his own issues, engaging with the problem, talking to the right people. He still looked a little like a puppy dog, but a wounded one, a late-night host that might actually be willing to reshape his legacy.
“The world is screaming and it is angry and we all need to figure out a way to take the anger, which of course is just sadness and fear, and do something with it and try to actually dig this up,” Fallon said. “This is such a long root in the ground. It is so long and deep but we have to get in there and we have to dig it up. I don’t know how else to do it. I’m clearly not an expert. I’m clearly a late-night talk show host and I screwed it up already. So, let’s go. Let’s reform. Let’s talk. Let’s do it.”
Header Image Source: NBC