The funny thing about Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” is that although it ran on the schedule a few full news days after Fallon’s frustratingly lightweight interview of GOP nominee Donald Trump, it was in fact taped the very next day and held in reserve until last night. The window of time suggested that perhaps Fallon and “The Tonight Show” would be at least pondering the vocal outcry to last Thursday night’s episode — in which Fallon, in a moment for the history books, tousled Donald Trump’s hair. But in taping, it had just been a few short hours since the conversation about Trump’s appearance on “The Tonight Show” had begun. (Which, no wonder: Fallon was in Los Angeles this weekend, making an appearance at the Emmy Awards.)
As a result, while it feels like the news cycle has lived, died, and lived again since Trump was on Fallon, Clinton’s appearance on “The Tonight Show” was a frozen moment in time dating all the way back to sometime early Friday. The pressure-cooker and pipe bomb scare had not yet rippled through Manhattan and western New Jersey; the Emmys had not yet unfurled its red carpet. And Trump had not completed his birther press cycle — a ploy he was so proud of, he tweeted a Washington Post article with the quoted line, “Donald Trump’s birther event is the greatest trick he’s ever pulled.” Trump hosted an hours-delayed press conference at a new hotel in order to deliver just a couple of sentences that (sort of) acknowledged President Obama was born in the United States and then (mendaciously) blamed it all on his rival Clinton.
Trump has created and dodged many different kinds of media kerfuffles in his candidacy, but this midday Friday dodge-and-deflect had a special halo of smug self-satisfaction. And if Trump’s campaign was hoping that the birther reversal would be buried under the rest of the weekend’s news, late-night comedy, at least, did not get the memo.
Monday night, late-night shows like “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” deliberately singled out and isolated Trump’s birther ploy with newfound, fangs-out viciousness. Meyers and Bee each followed up a clip of Trump’s statement with an immediate and dismissive “f—k you!” And while Colbert did not choose that particular profanity, he elaborated for several long minutes about what Trump and/or Putin could do with each other’s and/or Colbert’s own genitalia.
By contrast, Fallon’s show — the only one of the ones I’ve mentioned to have a politician in the hot seat — felt stranded in time. Not just in the news cycle of a few days ago, where Clinton’s illness was still of paramount concern and Trump had not yet stated that he did not believe the lies he had spread for five years, but in some kind of bygone era of American mainstream culture, disassociated from time and space. It was an uneventful but strangely gripping interview. Fallon was on tenterhooks, Clinton was warm and ingratiating in a way she rarely if ever is on-camera, and the two found abstract ways to comment on how embarrassing Fallon’s Trump interview was without saying exactly those words.
In what was the joke of the night, Fallon pulled out a paper bag that he claimed was full of stuff Trump left behind after his appearance on “The Tonight Show.” One was a portrait of Russian president Vladimir Putin in a heart-shaped frame; another was Pink Floyd’s album “The Wall.” (Clinton: “That’s as close as he’s going to get to the wall.”) The final object, Fallon allowed Clinton to pull out of the bag for herself. She came up with a mesh bag full of — “Softballs,” she declared with satisfaction. “That was my gift to him!” Fallon faux-protested. Then there was some crosstalk about how now Fallon was going to give the softballs to her, which culminated in Clinton launching into a story, possibly prepared, about how she used to play softball as a young person.
Fallon is more host than comedian, a performer who is less invested in finding the loudest laugh than he is in making sure everyone in the room is having a reasonably good time. He wasn’t going to change overnight, taping with Clinton the day after taping with Trump.
But in last night’s broadcast, Fallon seemed to be acknowledging some abashed self-reflection, an understanding that getting everyone to smile might not always be the right course of action. His opening monologue included a few more Trump jokes than usual, and later he cited his own daughter as a reason he was paying more attention to the election. But both seemed inserted into the show to correct some of the ill will he’d created, instead of honoring any particular viewpoint Fallon has. Fallon’s only political stance, for better or for worse, is the need to be liked.
Which is why the offering of softballs was so strange and funny and even a little sad. The softballs served as a “reveal” of his own self-awareness. But they also provided an opportunity for Fallon to own up publicly to the fact that in this election of eviscerations and zingers from late-night comedians, fellow politicians, and savvy constituents on Twitter, all Fallon can or will pitch are these things right here. It was a kind of weird confession.
Interestingly, though, Fallon’s reticence with Trump — and the subsequent weekend of bomb scares and the Jimmy Kimmel-hosted Emmy awards — seemed to sharpen the resolve of his colleagues and competitors. (Bee, who played the clip of Fallon ruffling Trump’s hair, all but admitted that she was incensed.) It was almost as if the other hosts were rushing to fill the vacuum that Fallon left when he whiffed on Trump on Thursday — and their monologues were heightened by the emotional climate. Because Fallon taped Friday, last night’s broadcast didn’t include the love letter to New York City that other shows folded into their openers in the wake of the bomb threats.
All this being said, it’s worth observing that Fallon’s softballs have some measure of success. Just as Fallon brought out a softer, cuddlier side of Donald Trump — one that is memorable, if reprehensible — his approach seemed to bring out a much warmer version of Clinton than has appeared on other talk shows. What Clinton said to Fallon read like firmly delivered comeuppance delivered to a schoolboy, such as Clinton saying, “You know, this is a really consequential election,” and Fallon responding, “Yeah, I know, I know, I know.” But in the context of the interview, it felt as if Clinton was trying to convince him to take the election, and his own future in it, somewhat more seriously.
Towards the end of the interview, Fallon presented Clinton with a few letters that have been written to him by kids, like the ones featured on Clinton’s “Letters to Hillary” Tumblr. He explained to her that these letters are part of a recurring segment where kids write in demands or even advice. She turned to level a gaze at him, so much so that her back was almost to the camera. And then she asked, about the advice he hears from his smallest fans: “Do you listen?”