Columns

Mitra ’18: Dear Jimmy Fallon

By
Opinions Editor
Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Trump administration, with its many foibles and missteps, has been a boon for late-night television. Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert have seen their ratings skyrocket after their scathing critiques of President Trump and his enablers. Jimmy Kimmel had one of the most viral moments of the year in May, with a heart-wrenching monologue that took down a Republican healthcare proposal gutting protections for people with pre-existing conditions. Saturday Night Live has re-emerged as a major driver of national conversation — and become all the more hilarious for it. (If you haven’t watched the skit “Kellywise” from this weekend’s show, you’re missing out.) But there is one late-night show that has failed to take advantage of the remarkable political era we are living in: The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

The story of The Tonight Show’s unanticipated fall from grace began last September, when Fallon was at the top of his comedy game. Fresh from ratings boost after ratings boost, he decided to invite then-presidential candidate Trump to his show to talk about the election. The interview that followed was one of the most cringe-worthy moments in modern late-night comedy, with an obsequious Fallon groveling — and normalizing  — a truly indefensible candidate. Though he later apologized for his error in judgment, his ratings took an irreversible hit: In the last year, his show has fallen from first to second in the rankings and, with the growing popularity of Jimmy Kimmel Live, could even find itself third in the months to come.

Yet Fallon has doubled down on his apolitical approach to comedy. When NBC host Willie Geist asked him about his failure to take on Trump in the same way as his late-night peers, Fallon admitted, “It’s just not what I do. I think it’d be weird for me to start doing that now. I don’t really even care that much about politics. I’ve got to be honest: I love pop culture more than I love politics.” Cue the backlash.

First of all, how does one separate politics and pop culture in the era of Trump? Trump’s shadow looms large and impacts all aspects of American life. His presence is felt on the football field as the NFL becomes the new political battleground of our time; in Hollywood, as the Harvey Weinstein saga has been transformed into a political brawl; and on our television screens, as programs like Black-ish, How to Get Away with Murder  and even Miss America tackle politics more than ever before. So Fallon’s distinction between politics and pop culture is either disingenuous or misguided; the line between the two has never been more blurred. By sidestepping the specter of Trump, he is ignoring a key driver of popular culture — and, in the process, making his own show culturally irrelevant.

Not to mention the fact that Fallon is only in a position to shy away from politics because he is not directly targeted by Trump’s unabashed hate-mongering. I doubt comedians like Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee or Hasan Minhaj would announce that they don’t “care that much about politics” right now. Fallon’s nonchalance is a reflection of his privilege as a wealthy white man — a privilege that much of the comedy on his show embraces. As New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino once pointed out on Twitter, “Never forget to be extremely wary of every person in your life who has not experienced this last year as a personal moral emergency.”

I’m not saying that Fallon should turn every single show into a political diatribe. He’s right in one respect: His brand of comedy has always centered on pop culture, and he can and should embrace that. If that means inviting celebrities to play “Wheel of Musical Impressions” on the show, then he can go right ahead. But that doesn’t mean he can’t also address Trump’s new travel ban in a monologue, ask guests to weigh in on the news of the day if they are willing or, heck, call out the president when he shrugs his shoulders at the devastation in Puerto Rico. I never thought I’d say this, but Jimmy Kimmel set an example of how to merge light-hearted celebrity gossip with political relevance earlier this year. Fallon doesn’t have to abandon his style and become what he’s not — but he should at least try to use his platform for more than just the same old laughs.

My favorite Fallon moment of the year by far has been his opening monologue after the horrifying events in Charlottesville in August. He began his speech by saying, “Even though the Tonight Show isn’t a political show, it is my responsibility to stand up against intolerance and extremism as a human being.” I just wish he’d continue to take his own advice.

Mili Mitra ’18 can be found watching SNL on repeat and can be reached at mili_mitra@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the show as The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. In fact, it is The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. The Herald regrets the error.

Topics: