The liberal media will never forgive Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon for momentarily treating Donald Trump like a normal guest when the then-presidential candidate appeared on the show last September.
In a long profile of Fallon set for the front of next Sunday's Arts page, New York Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff returned to the subject, with particular focus on the crime of Fallon playfully mussing Trump’s hair as a harmful humanization of the man, and implying that fateful incident caused Fallon’s show to be overtaken in the ratings by more left-wing ideological competition like the vulgar Stephen Colbert. The online headline: “Jimmy Fallon Was on Top of the World. Then Came Trump.”
This is old territory for Itzkoff, a retread of his original criticism a week after the now-notorious interview, praising left-wing “humorist” and TBS Full Frontal host Samantha Bee for scolding Fallon for failing to treat Trump as the second coming of Hitler.
He is weathering the most tumultuous period in his tenure there -- a predicament for which he has himself to thank, and one that raises the question of whether the multitalented but apolitical Mr. Fallon can ride out the current era of politicized, choose-your-side entertainment, when he just wants to have a good time.
Once the undisputed juggernaut of the late-night category, Mr. Fallon’s “Tonight Show,” a celebrity-friendly cavalcade of games and gags, has seen its ratings decline in recent months. Meanwhile, his politically pointed competitor Stephen Colbert, who hosts CBS’s “The Late Show,” has closed what was once a formidable gap of nearly one million viewers.
The resurgent interest in left-leaning programming hasn’t helped Mr. Fallon, a former star of “Saturday Night Live” who has built his brand on his all-around entertainer’s skills and down-the-middle tastes. And as Mr. Fallon is well aware, viewers haven’t seen him in quite the same light since an interview he conducted with Mr. Trump in September, which was widely criticized for its fawning, forgiving tone. In a gesture that has come to haunt the host, he concluded the segment by playfully running his fingers through Mr. Trump’s hair.
Mr. Fallon acknowledges now that the Trump interview was a setback, if not quite a mistake, and he has absorbed at least a portion of the anger that was directed at him by critics and online detractors.
“They have a right to be mad,” a chastened Mr. Fallon said in an interview this month. “If I let anyone down, it hurt my feelings that they didn’t like it. I got it.”
Itzkoff noted the growing politicization of Fallon’s rivals while portraying Fallon as a bit of a square by comparison:
Mr. Colbert has drawn headlines for a lewd joke about Mr. Trump and the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin; and Jimmy Kimmel, the host of ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” has touched off a political debate by sharing the story of his newborn son’s heart surgery, there is a sense that Mr. Fallon cannot command the zeitgeist as easily as he used to.
Then Itzkoff returned once again to that fateful day that Fallon failed to defenestrate his guest, candidate Trump.
But as much as any other virtue or quality he possesses, what has lately come to define Mr. Fallon is his interview with Mr. Trump from Sept. 15.
That day had been a particularly contentious one for Mr. Trump, then the Republican presidential nominee: In a Washington Post interview, he refused to say that President Obama was born in the United States, and his son Donald Jr. was being criticized for saying “they’d be warming up the gas chamber” if Republicans behaved as Democrats did.
Mr. Fallon’s questions, however, were mostly innocuous; he asked Mr. Trump why children should want to grow up to be president and if his business background had helped him in the campaign. Their conversation concluded with Mr. Fallon fulfilling his longstanding wish of ruffling Mr. Trump’s hair.
“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.’”
Once the interview was broadcast, Mr. Fallon said, “It all started going crazy.” A barrage of negative social media posts gave way to damning appraisals in publications like Variety, where the critic Sonia Saraiya asked: “Who wouldn’t Fallon interview with such fawning, giggly acceptance? Where would he draw the line?”
She added, “How long will it take before American audiences lose all their faith in him, as an honest person they can watch every night?”
Accusations that Mr. Fallon was helping to normalize an extremist candidate spread rapidly, just as they had when Mr. Michaels invited Mr. Trump to host “Saturday Night Live” in 2015.
Fallon groveled, but will it be enough to appease the left-wing jackals?
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“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.”
One event after another seemed to intervene in Mr. Fallon’s life, crowding out the fury over the Trump interview but not quelling it.
In the Trump era, it is vitally important that late-night jokes be politicized.
There’s an enduring expectation that Mr. Fallon’s political comedy will never be as incisive as his competitors’. Reviewing their reactions to the same supply of Trump news on a given night in February, James Poniewozik wrote in The Times, “Mr. Colbert brought a carving knife, and Mr. Fallon brought a butter knife.”
After quoting Fallon saying “I’m happy that only 50 percent of my monologue is about Trump,” Itzkoff went to a late night stalwart who suggested that kind of balance won’t cut it these days.
Mr. Leno, who was both praised and criticized for his evenhanded approach to political comedy, said that kind of centrism was almost impossible today.
“We live in an era now where if you don’t take sides, both sides hate you,” Mr. Leno said.
Even Leno, who didn't take political stands in his monologues, felt the need to distance himself from Trump before defending an apolitical approach to late-night humor. Comedienne Tina Fey got in the act, supporting Fallon and saying “The blame lies with the hateful rhetoric of the candidate [that would be Trump].”