We all remember the stomach-churning moment when Jimmy Fallon playfully tousled the hair of then-Republican-presidential-nominee Donald Trump last September, during a Tonight Show interview that could generously be referred to as soft-balling. At the time, no one dreamed that Trump would eventually get elected, so the damage done by any effort to “humanize” Trump hadn’t yet been fully appreciated. Still, many protested, although some outlets, like our own, pondered, “What did we expect Jimmy Fallon to do with Donald Trump, anyway?” Unlike his contemporaries like Stephen Colbert, Fallon has never been known as much of a political comedian, favoring lip-sync battles and laughing at his own jokes over systematic takedowns of the current political regime.
A new New York Times article points out, however, that Fallon nevertheless paid a severe price for his Trump stunt:
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.
Since that infamous interview, Fallon has seen his ratings plummet, while a re-energized Colbert has surged ahead of him. According to the Times, Fallon is “weathering the most tumultuous period in his [Tonight Show] tenure—a predicament for which he has himself to thank.”
Fallon knows where it all went wrong, and says about his detractors: “They have a right to be mad.” He also tries to explain the rationale behind that odd hair-ruffling moment: “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.’”
Compounding the problem, Fallon now admits, was not addressing the resulting controversy directly: “I didn’t talk about it, and I should have talked about it. I regret that.”
Part of the problem stems exactly from Fallon’s mostly innocuous political stance: “The segments he loves best, Mr. Fallon said, are dispensable morsels of ‘brain candy’”—the moment “when people go, ‘That’s cool that they put this much thought into such a dumb, silly bit.”’ But in an age when a typical day’s political events provide enough fodder for a two-hour opening monologue, audiences may be desiring something more topical than Fallon’s personal brand of humor and popular song covers with kid instruments. Read more at The New York Times today.