Has Donald Trump Tainted Jimmy Fallon for Good?


Late-night host Jimmy Fallon comes off as a sweetheart, a huge fan of pop music who improvises a song for any occasion and appears to have the entertainment industry’s A-list on speed dial. Guests on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” present an extra dose of sparkle when they join him onstage, their smiles artificially switched to a high beam setting as if to match the amplified pep of its host.

Depending on the day you’ve endured, an hour of Fallon can serve as a gentle, non-habit forming sleep aid. Or it can come off as the equivalent dumping a box of aspartame on to your tongue in an effort to chase away the bitterness of the previous 12-to-18 waking hours of that preceded his show. More and more, encounters with “The Tonight Show” have come to feel like the latter.

Historically “The Tonight Show” has been the dominant late night telecast, even when NBC fumbled its handoff from Jay Leno to Conan O’Brien before, to the public’s great displeasure, handing it back to the-very much-past-his-sell-by-date Leno in an act of desperation. That reign continued after Fallon took over, and would have steamed along full throttle, if not for the dawning of the stressful political era we now find ourselves in.

Few relationships are sunk by voicing a lack of love for Jimmy Fallon these days. Demonstrations of general disdain at the mention of his name, in fact, are all but expected among viewers who still care enough to watch late night talk shows in their timeslots. And this general sense of tsuris bears out in the ratings.

At present “The Tonight Show” is pre-empted until February 26 by NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics currently underway in Pyeongchang, South Korea. But this week, NBC is airing a five-minute version of the late-night talk show called “Tonight Show Fallon 5" following NBC’s primetime coverage of the games.

Five minutes of Fallon works pretty well, actually. Or it could be that SpongeBob and Paul Rudd make anything palatable. Hard to say.

Regardless of how that taster spoon of "Tonight Show" strikes you, in late November, a New York Times story indicated that Fallon’s audience declined by an average of 700,000 per night between the fall 2016 season and fall 2017. Meanwhile, the audiences for Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel, the two broadcast hosts offering spikier political humor that has, in Kimmel’s case, inspired conversation and dinner table debate, have gone up.

According to Nielsen, in the season-to-date ratings race “The Late Show” is averaging an audience of 3.86 million to the 2.77 million who tune in for “The Tonight Show.” “Kimmel” is pulling 2.29 million on average. That’s total viewers. In the advertiser-attractive 18-to-49 demographic Fallon is still on top, with Kimmel and Colbert just about neck and neck. But even in that demographic, Fallon’s lead has diminished.

The larger question is why Fallon still inspires a level of low-grade animus in a number of viewers. It’s not just about his famous tousling of Donald Trump’s comb over anymore. Surely that has something to do with it, but Americans are famously forgiving and forgetful when it comes to celebrity gaffes, even the ones that normalize racists.

Rather, it’s a matter of Fallon’s stubborn inability to pivot into the new role of the late night host as mordant satirist and truth teller in an era marked by the obfuscation of truth, constant bitterness and endless anxiety.

Fallon opens nearly all of his monologues with some variation of, “Guys, here’s what people are talking about.” What follows is a string of punchlines that barely meet that qualification. Take his monologue from the night after Trump’s State of the Union address, in which the harshest joke was a crack that Trump is keeping Guantanamo Bay open because he thought it was an amusement park (Rimshot!). Then he took a mild swipe at the annoyance of CNN’s new alerts.

Colbert dissected the speech, the Democratic response, and other political headlines, including Trump’s refusal to impose restrictions on Russia congress already approved; Trump’s dodging of a meeting with special counsel Robert Mueller; and congressman Devin Nunes’ promotion of releasing the memo on the FBI supposedly proving the organization’s bias against the president. You know, the stuff people actually are (or were, at that time) talking about.

Where Colbert, Kimmel and other late night hosts rip into the absurd obscenity of today's presidential politics, Fallon opts for harmless yuks delivered with a Borscht-belt "hey-o!" insincerity. He’s a man obstinately camped out in a place he believes to be the middle ground in an era where such a place no longer exists, especially in comedy.

Here is where we touch upon the subtle-though-important difference between middle ground and common ground. In essence, the first term speaks to the effort to please everybody. The second acknowledges that regardless of a person’s political, religious or social affiliations, there are specific issues that hold a shared interest for all of us, or fundamental beliefs that are worth acknowledging. Our individual views on such issues vary wildly but, in essence, we can all agree that they are important.

This is why Colbert’s relentless hammering on the Russia investigation and Trump’s pathological mendacity has lifted the fortunes of “The Late Show,” and Kimmel’s heartfelt statements about healthcare and DACA, have increased his audience numbers. Colbert's approach may be the more partisan of the two, but both speak to a shared feeling that something has gone very wrong with our political leadership and the soul of this nation. Kimmel’s takes, in fact, have gone viral.

Fallon’s continued strength in 18-to-49 is based on the viral nature of his “Tonight Show” episodes, which he and his producers have structured into a series of digestible and social media-friendly bits made to be circulated. The “Classroom Instruments” series in particular, featuring pop stars singing hits to tiny xylophones, toy synthesizers and miniature percussion kits, was made for the Internet audience.

But Fallon also styles his monologue content to mirror the broad appeal of his viral segments, which is to say they’re soft and consciously written so as not to offend anyone. In any age that’s a recipe for comedy poison. In these days, on almost any day, it's kind of like fiddling and doing a soft-shoe shuffle while Rome burns. Just slightly.

The late night landscape fractured long ago, with entities on broadcast and cable speaking to small niches based on personality. And part of the shift we’re seeing in post-prime time has to do with dueling schools of comedy. One could posit that Colbert and Kimmel studied at the feet of David Letterman, Carson’s protégé. Fallon, and current “Late Night” host Seth Meyers, honor kings of late night that came before as well. They also made their bones under Lorne Michaels and “Saturday Night Live,” and as we’re seeing now, that second mentorship culminates in different approaches. “Saturday Night Live” is a laboratory meant to develop personalities with distinct styles into individual brands and stars.

What this translates to is an emphasis and sharpening of individual strengths which,  in this moment, favors Meyers, the one-time co-host of “Weekend Update” alongside Amy Poehler. The “Late Night” brand as Letterman developed it is a place where the host can push the comedic edge, enabling Meyers to comfortably serve up brutally incisive headline driven observations. Over on CBS, Colbert stepped into Letterman’s slot gingerly but, owing to the precedent set by his predecessor, was soon unleashed to go for the political jugular.

Against this we have Fallon’s doomed insistence upon clinging to the old vision of “The Tonight Show” as established by the hosts who came before him – Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno, notably – men who adhered to a sense of being smoothly agnostic in their political humor.

Those men also performed in eras when the country was split between conservatives and liberals, as it has been throughout our history. They found a way to please all comers. The greatness of Carson, in fact, was that he was seen as a uniting force. He was also the only late-night talk show game going for many years. But he excelled at making the lives of the rich and famous accessible to everyday people, and getting an audience to break up simply by, say, puckishly mentioning "Bimini" as the preface to his last one-liner about one-time presidential contender Gary Hart.  Even the unctuous Leno cultivated an audience for his blandness.

Fallon is trying mightily to capture some version of these old feelings, but either he doesn’t understand or refuses to acknowledge that our worship of fame, an idolatry that he perpetuates, is in part what brought us to our dangerous and distressing social and political now. Today’s best late night hosts still feed the entertainment industry beast, but they also distill each day's new serving of political rhetoric and spin into plain language, showing the horror for what it is while inviting us to laugh at the cosmic farce of it all. Their work is medicine for our sanity.

Fallon wears “The Tonight Show” like an off-the-rack suit that’s slightly too large and slides around on his slight frame, as if it’s not quite his but it’s not meant for anyone else in particular, either. One day he may tailor it to fit the times, and maybe that will help. Problem is, we’re used to seeing him like this, and that makes him a symptom of the problem when what we really need is potent relief.

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