For most of my life, there has always been one late-night comedian I’ve appreciated the most.
I regularly seek out his “Ew” skits or pup quizzes on YouTube when I’m having a bad day. I have listened to his rendition of “You’ll Be Back” from “The Hamilton Mixtape” on repeat through long car drives. My friends and I pass videos of his lip sync battles back and forth on social media like Hallmark cards. “Hey, I know we haven’t talked for a while, but here’s a reason to smile.” When all is going wrong with the world, I have felt that Jimmy Fallon could always make it right again.
Little did I know, Fallon has not been having a very good year. Ratings are at an all-time low for “The Tonight Show,” and most people would say it’s entirely the fault of Jimmy Fallon.
The root of the problem can be traced back to September 2016, when he interviewed Donald Trump just two months before he was elected president. At the time, Trump was already knee-deep in defending his slight of phrase about President Obama’s nationality and the divide between the Republican and Democratic parties. But when he arrived on Fallon’s show that night, he was greeted with friendly banter about changes in his inflection and a tousle of the famous Trump hair (to see clips of the interview, click here, here, and here).
To be honest, as a regular viewer of Fallon’s show, this interview didn’t even cross my radar. And after watching it recently, I don’t see any initial harm in this moment of light banter. Mr. Fallon is known for his lighter content, especially when it comes to guests on his show. He got Morgan Freeman to suck helium while on the show, for goodness’ sake.
But “Huffington Post” writer Maxwell Strachan explains the deeper issue of this interaction: “Fallon’s interview, in many people’s eyes, was not just embarrassing, but dangerous, normalizing the views of a seemingly unstable man who was threatening the central tenets of the country, all in exchange for a few cheap laughs and maybe a slight ratings bump.”
Response didn’t end there. In the words of a particularly scathing response from “Variety” writer Sonia Saraiya, “Fallon has never been a particularly incisive questioner, but allowing Trump to get away with 15 minutes of national airtime as fuzzy as a stuffed animal leads the rest of us to wonder: Who wouldn’t Fallon interview with such fawning, giggly acceptance? Where would he draw the line? And if, as is possible for this people-pleasing comedian, there is no such person he’d say no to, no situation in which he’d draw the line—then how long will it take before American audiences lose all their faith in him, as an honest person they can watch every night?”
And, of course, Twitter had something to say about it. Journalist and author Mark Harris tweeted after the interview, “I don’t fault Jimmy Fallon for not being a journalist. I do fault him for his willingness to serve as hell’s court jester.” Author Ken Jennings tweeted, “In his defense, Jimmy Fallon just pulled in a 35 share among white supremacists 18-49.” Comedian Megan Amram wrote, “Fallon interviewing Hitler: ‘Let’s talk about your book!’”
So, okay, one guest appearance on the show went badly. But then in October 2016, Fallon was faced with headlines claiming he had a drinking problem, followed quickly by his hosting of the Golden Globes and the premier of his new ride at Universal Orlando. Maybe this is why it wasn’t until May of this year that the “Tonight Show” host is finally addressing the backlash from the September interview.
In a May 17 article published by “The New York Times,” Fallon says of the Trump hair ruffle, “I didn’t do it to humanize him. 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.’”
As a fan of Fallon’s, I struggle with the reaction to his Trump interview on many levels. In no way do I think his comedic quality or integrity as a host were negatively affected by his interaction with Donald Trump.Fallon has not made his name by discussing politics on his show, as was the case of many late-night comedians until 2017.
Actor Tina Fey recently echoed this sentiment to “The New York Times”: “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. ‘The Tonight Show’ has historically been a friendly, light show.”
And yet, since the downward spiral after September 2016, Fallon has not shied away from joining in the theme of anti-Trump comedy. In January, he began his own President Trump impersonations on his show, and in mid-May his monologue went viral when he pointed out the similarities between a commencement speech given by the president and Elle Wood’s graduation speech from “Legally Blonde.”
So where do we go from here? Comedian Seth Meyers might have put it best in his June 2016 interview with “The Atlantic”: “‘There’s that great freedom of talking about the news without being the news,’ Meyers says, adding that with journalism, there’s more consideration over what can or can’t be said in a piece. “Whereas for us, it’s kinda like, ‘Fuck it, this is how we feel’ […] So we can just have our point of view and get it out there.’”
As a comedian, Jimmy Fallon should not have to be held to any moral or political compass beyond the one that makes his audiences laugh. And while talking with Donald Trump on public television was perceived by many as an opportunity, this does not mean that Fallon should have to deviate from his humor style to haze and attack a guest on his show. According to Fallon himself, “I tossed and turned for a couple of weeks, but I have to make people laugh. People that voted for Trump watch my show as well.”
There is no doubt that Trump’s presidency has been gold for comedy writers all over America. But as far as I’m concerned, one bumbling politician does not for everyone a good joke make. I’d rather keep tuning in to “The Tonight Show” for Google Translate Songs anyway.