If Jimmy Fallon had any credibility left as a thinking comedian with a point-of-view, he lost the last shred of it last night. Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump appeared on “The Tonight Show” for a few minutes to talk up his campaign, in the midst of one of the mendacious and evasive 24-hour periods of his political career to date.
This morning, Trump ended a slimy two-day news cycle by finally admitting that President Barack Obama was born in the United States — but in the process, re-stoked the controversy, waffled on the topic, and manipulated media coverage to focus on the opening of his new hotel (just hours after he gloated that that same press pool was stranded on the tarmac and therefore couldn’t come to his rally).
During this particularly maddening news cycle, Trump stopped by “The Tonight Show” to tape last night’s episode. And Fallon — either unaware or indifferent to the racist overtones of Trump’s birtherism or the “reveal” of his medical records on “Dr. Oz” — chose to fawn all over the candidate. In the episode’s metaphorical money shot, Fallon asked Trump if he could muss his orange coiffure. In an acquiescence that felt rehearsed, Trump let him have at it. Trump’s combover deflated in long, cotton-candy-like wisps. As Fallon stood to bid him farewell, the candidate nervously patted it back into place.
If Trump becomes president, that image of Fallon ruffling Trump’s hair will be the moment when the tide turned. The gesture was so affectionate and grandfatherly that Fallon provided Trump with a seal of mainstream approval that he does not deserve.
To be fair, while Trump is a nationalist demagogue, Fallon’s desire to present Trump as part of a multifaceted array of guests with similarly broad appeal is understandable. “The Tonight Show” is a long-running mainstay for the American audience, and with the best ratings in late-night, it’s found some way to continue to be a something-for-everyone program. Fallon’s lineup last night was almost an amusing collection of demographic plays — Norm MacDonald, the notoriously dry Generation X comedian, Kiiara, a 21-year-old dance-pop singer from Chicago on the verge of major breakout, and 70-year-old baby boomer Trump.
But bringing together disparate representations of a viewing audience works best when you give them something to unite under. That’s a principle that applies to both television and politics. So while Fallon brought together some very different people in his studio yesterday, the worlds each represented remained siloed off from each other. Fallon, who should have been the unifying presence, was just a blank slate; a mirror that is quick to collapse into giggles.
It’s unfortunate that Fallon does not seem to think that there might be something about Donald Trump that deserves more attention than simply tousling his hair and making fun of his speech patterns. Of course, the late-night host is not the only member of the media to be bizarrely undone by Trump’s publicity blitz; the candidate so skews the palette of what we consider acceptable that journalists of all stripes find it hard to keep up. But Fallon had what a lot of journalists, comedians, and just average citizens don’t last night, and that is access. Forget even the argument of journalistic responsibility or political ethics, though those are fair critiques — Fallon could have, as it is his job, made fun of his easily mockable guest. But the closest Fallon got to discomfiting Trump was when he asked something about Russian President Vladmir Putin, and as soon as he did, Fallon walked it back, in what read as a fear of offending the candidate. This was followed up, a few questions later, with: “Have you ever played the board game Sorry?”
Seth Meyers, whose show directly follows his on NBC, has taken quite a different tack to political humor. As he told the Atlantic earlier this year, comedians aren’t journalists, and that means they get to have a point of view and run with it. Following Trump’s many press bans, Meyers cheekily banned Trump from his own show. Last night, after Trump whiffed through Fallon, Meyers had on Senator Bernie Sanders, and the two had an intimate conversation about personal activism in a world dominated by major political powers — a reminder of just how fantastic a medium for conversation late-night television can be.
It’s also worth pointing out that while a common misconception posits that the Federal Communications Commission’s “equal-time” rule dating back to 1934 for political candidates applies to late-night television, the FCC typically interprets broadcast late-night TV as if it is a news show, and therefore, does not require equal-time from it. (“Saturday Night Live,” a scripted show, did fall under that rule, which was relevant last year when Trump hosted the variety show.)
Which is to say that clearly, based on both the FCC and his own network colleague’s actions, Fallon is not required to pretend as if Donald Trump is a normal candidate for president. He is choosing to, and that is where the true disappointment of last night’s interview arises. Fallon has never been a particularly incisive questioner, but allowing Trump to get away with 15 minutes of national airtime as fuzzy as a stuffed animal leads the rest of us to wonder: Who wouldn’t Fallon interview with such fawning, giggly acceptance? Where would he draw the line? And if, as is possible for this people-pleasing comedian, there is no such person he’d say no to, no situation in which he’d draw the line — then how long will it take before American audiences lose all their faith in him, as an honest person they can watch every night?