The New York Times on Sunday featured culture reporter Dave Itzkoff’s saddened profile of talk show host Jimmy Fallon, under fire this month after a “Saturday Night Live” sketch from 2000 resurfaced featuring the comedian in blackface portraying comedian Chris Rock. It began making the rounds on Twitter in the wake of the George Floyd killing. “Jimmy Fallon Is Sorry. That’s a First Step” made for a two-page, 3,500 word (!) spread in the Arts & Leisure section.
The online headline deck was even less forgiving: “Jimmy Fallon Is Sorry. But What Does That Mean? -- The “Tonight Show” host was forced to publicly reckon with a blackface clip from his past and his own role in systemic racism. But will it lead to a true change, or was it just lip service?”
Apparently the SNL skit caused such grievous harm to race relations that hardly anyone in the world commented on it at the time, and then everyone forgot it for 20 years.
Itzkoff set the scene of penitence:
On the evening of June 1, Jimmy Fallon sat behind a well-worn table in a corner of the Sagaponack, N.Y., farmhouse that has become the substitute studio of “The Tonight Show.”
In a sometimes quavering voice, Fallon said he was sorry for wearing blackface in an old “Saturday Night Live” sketch that had recently been recirculating online. He did not specifically mention the death of George Floyd -- that would come later in the program....
This was a strange accusation to make about a late-night talk show host-comedian: How dare Fallon thrive on “fun and frivolity”!
Fallon, by his own admission, is an entertainer who thrives on fun and frivolity. He is also vulnerable to a zeitgeist that can quickly turn against his down-the-middle program -- he is still criticized for tousling the hair of then-candidate Donald J. Trump in 2016 -- and favor fellow hosts who are more comfortable staking out bolder positions.
(Fallon was also criticized by Itzkoff for treating Trump as a normal guest in that 2016 appearance.)
Topics like the killings of black Americans by police officers are horrifying, and they are perhaps unsuited to a host who is simultaneously trying to account for a past transgression that perpetuated a longstanding racist practice that continues to reverberate in entertainment, education and politics. The recent efforts of “The Tonight Show” and other late-night programs to address these subjects have once again called attention to how predominantly white and male this genre remains.
In this same piece, Itzkoff mentioned biracial late-night host Trevor Noah just once. He only fleetingly noted fellow late-night host Jimmy Kimmel’s use of blackface “to impersonate celebrities on his Comedy Central series ‘The Man Show.’”
Kimmel is far more fiery with the anti-Trump invective than is Fallon, and appears to have gotten a bit of a break from the Times for his recurring blackface -- which he still hasn't addressed -- compared to the hostility directed toward the more mild-mannered Fallon’s one-off performance, even after Fallon's public show of remorse.
Again, Itzkoff denigrated an escapist comedian for not talking more about politics and race.
But speaking about issues of politics and race does not come as easily for Fallon as it does for his fellow late-night hosts. He does not use his personal history to illuminate the present day like Trevor Noah of “The Daily Show,” who is biracial and grew up in apartheid-era South Africa; he does not have the erudition of Colbert, who regularly features prominent politicians on his show; and he doesn’t have the satirical fury of Kimmel, who now hosts ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” and who has shown an increased willingness to condemn President Trump and his administration.