Jimmy Fallon, the labrador retriever of late night network television, is having an existential crisis. Not only is he trying to make his patented formula of maddeningly mindless games and bits with celebrities work in the era of Donald Trump, but he’s still dealing with the fallout of that one time he rubbed Trump’s hair on national television.
A new profile by the New York Times gives us insight into how the Tonight Show host is dealing with his falling ratings and the seeming need to make some kind of fundamental shift to respond to Trump. The piece of course also addresses the notorious Trump interview, in which Fallon threw him a series of softball questions and went on to “mess up” the Bermuda Triangle that is Trump’s hair.
Fallon was met with a swift and smoldering storm of criticism, with all kinds of outlets calling him out for not only letting a xenophobic Gordon Gecko wannabe off the hook, but portraying him as a kindly old grandpa. But but but! Fallon didn’t mean it! From the Times:
“I didn’t do it to humanize him,” Mr. Fallon said, explaining this moment to me. “I almost did it to minimize him. I didn’t think that would be a compliment: ‘He did the thing that we all wanted to do.’”
“I’m a people pleaser,” he said. “If there’s one bad thing on Twitter about me, it will make me upset. So, after this happened, I was devastated. I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just trying to have fun.”
It’s at this point when the surprising fact that Jimmy Fallon is 42 years old sets in. Sure, he’s aged well, but saying that you were “trying to have fun” to explain a gross tonal oversight that had real political consequences has a Leave It To Beaver-esque tone that makes it seem like Fallon doesn’t have the maturity to understand how it affected people. But then again, it seems everyone around him kind of treats him like a child as well.
“Jimmy is not a political comedian, so it would be very phony of him to go out and do long political joke rants just because that’s what some people want…But I don’t think the blame lies with ‘The Tonight Show.’ The blame lies with the hateful rhetoric of the candidate.”
Steve Burke, chief executive at NBCUniversal:
“If the world gets a little snarkier, I don’t think the answer is for Jimmy to get snarkier. I think the answer is for Jimmy to be Jimmy.”
“We live in an era now where if you don’t take sides, both sides hate you.”
Lorne Michaels (who also booked Trump to host Saturday Night Live) after saying that we were all sure Hillary was going to win, which yes we were:
“You’re assuming that people can’t make up their own minds,” Mr. Michaels said. “The moment they see someone, they go, ‘Oh, they had him on there, then they must love him.’ You couldn’t do that show if you only had people you liked.”
Interestingly enough, it seems like the only person willing to admit on record that the hair bit was idiotic is Fallon. But don’t think that means he will change anything at all about his show!
“I tossed and turned for a couple of weeks, but I have to make people laugh,” he said. “People that voted for Trump watch my show as well.”
Fallon is in a complicated situation. It’s true that late night television is saturated with Trump criticism, and it’s maybe important to provide a different kind of outlet for people, especially if you’re not good at talking politics.
But in a time when we feel closer than ever to actual nuclear apocalypse, when the president is launching multiple assaults on Americans, especially marginalized people, and is clearly trying to cover up a scandal while also directly feeding classified information to Russia, Jimmy Fallon’s fun and games don’t quite cut it, and he doesn’t seem to know what else to do.