We’re a month into Donald Trump’s presidency, and Jimmy Fallon already looks exhausted.
While many of his colleagues in late-night TV attempted to make sense of the Feb. 16 press conference that transpired on television mere hours before their shows were set to tape, the Tonight Show host took a different approach. Fallon transformed himself into Trump with a styled blond wig, copious amounts of makeup to match the president’s hue, and the hand gestures to embody the persona. A frequent character in his bag of comedic charades during the 2016 election, Fallon’s Trump appeared in front of gold curtains and responded to nearly every question as “fake news.”
Add in a tiny hand holding a glass of water for Fallon’s Trump to sip, and a Magic 8-Ball that revealed his answers, and you’ve got the entire essence of the tedious sketch.
Fallon’s off night came as, for the first time since Stephen Colbert made his debut on The Late Show in September 2015, the undisputed king of late-night TV lost his ratings lead.
Colbert’s streak began the week he had Jon Stewart read fake executive orders from the president. For three weeks straight Colbert has beaten Fallon in viewers overall. However, Fallon still has a strong lead in the 18-49 demo (the main one advertisers care about). It’s too early to say if it’s more of a blip or if it’s leading to something more concrete—and it’ll matter more during the Upfronts in May—but for the first time in ages late-night TV has become competitive.
The days of Leno and Letterman harboring personal beef are long gone. Nowadays hosts cheerfully appear on each others’ shows and refrain from publicly criticizing one another. And unlike previous late-night wars—both of a ratings and personal nature—there’s a digital front on top of what we see on TV. On YouTube, Fallon’s reign has been just as dominant.
But Colbert is suddenly doing better than Fallon, and there’s no surprise as to why. It’s Trump, and what’s being called the Trump Bump has allowed Colbert to find his groove while Fallon struggles. For Fallon detractors, it’s schadenfreude.
A lot of the online vitriol regarding Fallon stems from his role in his now-infamous and contentious interview with Trump. It came just 10 days before the first presidential debate, that fit of Fallon ruffling Trump’s hair like a toddler on grandpa’s lap.
The puff moment fell flat, and more than five months after the interview Fallon is still on the receiving end of backlash. Whether it’s his lukewarm turn at the Golden Globes, quips about him potentially hosting the White House correspondents’ dinner because he’d be safe, or his slip in the ratings, Fallon has run into a pitchfork mob of indignant liberals.
After all, at least one person was swayed enough by Fallon’s interview to vote for Trump. And Twitter is apt to remind him about it at every turn.
But is it the defining factor in the ratings swing? Or is it just a small blip in a landscape learning to adapt to such a radically different White House? And where does Fallon—a non-political host who garnered hatred because he didn’t challenge a guest—fit into all this?
Fallon’s debut on The Tonight Show in 2014 after Jay Leno stepped down arrived with fanfare. Fallon had been refreshing on Late Night, youthful and ripe with trending music. It was a popular alternative to Craig Ferguson’s acquired taste.
When he first stepped onto that stage, it felt like he was trying to capture some of the magic of legendary Tonight Show host Johnny Carson. His show included “starring” in the title like Carson’s rendition of The Tonight Show, whereas others used “with”; the sketches recalled some of Carson’s bits; and Fallon even brought the show back to its original home in New York City. But Fallon was looking forward.
His staff tapped into social media, and while he certainly wasn’t the first late-night host to do it—Jimmy Kimmel’s YouTube channel started posting videos years before Fallon’s did—he became the best at it. Anything he did on the show got a second life online, and it wasn’t long before Fallon trumped Kimmel on YouTube.
Early reviews were mostly positive as TV writers cited Fallon’s manner and likability among the show’s strengths. Even as one of the show’s early critics, the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, called him “the nation’s most promising nephew.”
“What gives the show its reputation for warmth is the viral elements, those joyful dance contests and lip-synch showdowns, in which Fallon is at his best, laid-back and generous,” she wrote in 2014. “There’s something undeniably ingratiating, too, about the way he has spliced two strains of nostalgia: fondness for sixties talk shows and memories of dumb nineties pop culture (a recent skit featured four separate, logarithmically unfunny references to Sour Patch Kids). But as a host? The man’s a lox.”
Throughout the Obama years, Fallon’s schtick stayed true to what worked. Its most popular sketch spawned a spinoff series. When Colbert stepped into his broadcast territory, Fallon cemented his spot at the top: Just one day after Colbert’s debut, Fallon delivered a double whammy of viral goodness. Until this month, that streak stuck.
The hair ruffle heard ’round the world
Popular and seemingly untouchable, Fallon settled into his show. He wasn’t a political host, but he didn’t need to go there. A few years later, he can no longer afford that luxury.
Like many of his bits, Fallon ruffling Trump’s hair was a lowest-common denominator moment; you figure that Fallon would’ve done it to any other guest he had on. The audience loved it, but at home it played out much differently depending on how you felt about the man who would soon become president. (Reddit’s main Trump hub loved the moment, as well as the subsequent interview.)
Backlash to Fallon arrived swiftly. Viewers and journalists accused Fallon of humanizing Trump and his rhetoric with a viral moment intended to be light; he was further lambasted for not challenging Trump on his policies or any of his lies. Samantha Bee called out Fallon and NBC for their roles during an episode of Full Frontal.
“If he thinks that a race-baiting demagogue is OK, that gives permission to millions of Americans to also think that,” she said.
On the other hand Seth Meyers and Colbert both stood up for him, and Meyers later called for people to blame him for Trump winning instead; Meyers pointed to his role at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner as proof.
“I mean, have you seen my show?” Fallon responded when asked about the interview a few days later. “I’m never too hard on anyone.”
Comedian Billy Eichner was kind toward Fallon in the months after the interview, although he called the moment “naïve and a bit of a slap in the face,” and said that Fallon probably didn’t think any of it through by treating Trump like everyone else in that moment—and might not have been aware of how it looked to other people.
“I hope that he’ll be more mindful of that because Jimmy does have a big platform,” Eichner told Vulture in January. “He gets double the ratings of the other guys. He is probably speaking to more Trump voters than you or I. And I do think there’s a responsibility to not take things lightly.”
Late-night TV’s political roots
Some have argued that Fallon shouldn’t be held to the same standards as his professional colleagues—many alums of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show—because he’s not a politics guy. (He even admitted in Live From New York, an oral history of Saturday Night Live, that he didn’t really follow the news before being asked to host “Weekend Update.”)
Unfortunately for Fallon, his job is historically political.
In the wake of Michael Flynn’s resignation as national security adviser, many—including one of the reporters responsible for breaking the stories on Watergate—began to draw political parallels to modern times. While Americans in the early ’70s didn’t have the kind of instant access to news that papers, digital media, and cable offer, it was from an unlikely source where many learned about the scandal that brought down President Nixon: late-night TV.
Dick Cavett, host of ABC’s The Dick Cavett Show from 1968 to 1974, covered Watergate in depth as it happened more often than anyone but nightly newscasts. He chatted with the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, G. Gordon Liddy, and most of the major players in Watergate, often with a simple approach: Let the interview subject talk. (Given the number of lies that Trump and his administration have said since he took office, this approach is no longer wise.)
The point is Cavett didn’t assume that his audience followed the story like he did, so he would catch his viewers up. With some humor, of course.
His attention to Watergate, as shown in the 2014 documentary Dick Cavett’s Watergate, would pay off. He caught the ire of Nixon’s White House—not for the first time, as the Nixon tapes would eventually reveal—and was invited to film a special episode from the Senate hearing room where government investigations took place. This wouldn’t feel too out of place to late-night hosts taking their shows to the RNC and DNC, or out on the road to get the story. While Fallon has been compared to Carson, it’s Meyers who has been compared to Cavett.
Cavett didn’t have the ratings of his late-night rival and friend Carson, but according to Dick Cavett’s Watergate director John Scheinfeld, Cavett ultimately had the respect and the watercooler chatter the next day from him. Cavett also argued that Carson, who was more of an entertainer, was capable of doing Watergate-related segments too.
Let’s remember that Fallon has made plenty of jokes at the expense of the presidency, no matter who’s in office. Fallon apologists note that he doesn’t need politics to succeed, and he was fine pre-Trump.
Now he’s trying and has looked out of his comfort zone, which might be worse. Especially because Carson, when push came to shove, could get political with the best of them.
“Mr. Carson alone presides over our consciousness,” the New York Times wrote in 1975. “When he began making Watergate jokes we knew it was permissible to ridicule the President that Mr. Nixon was done for.”
Trump was made for Meyers and Colbert
Fallon’s Trump shortcomings don’t occur in a bubble. His competition is frankly passing him by, when it comes to political humor.
This time last year, Meyers was already coming into his own in his interviews and smart analysis, but was far behind his fellow late-night hosts on YouTube and Facebook. He passed 1 million subscribers on Feb. 15, and millions watch his “A Closer Look” segments online daily.
Colbert had a rocky start at The Late Show and suffered a shakeup after getting a new showrunner; rumors swirled that James Corden could replace him. But he’s turned it around (and even humanized himself). He embraced aspects of The Colbert Report, stopped trying to hit the middle ground, and came out swinging. For both of them, daily Trump takes are firmly in their comedic arsenal.
Fallon still has the most subscribers out of any of them, and many of his videos easily reach 1 million views. But it’s been ages since Fallon had a truly viral moment, besides the ruffle. His most popular video in the past year is his “Lip Sync Battle” with Melissa McCarthy, one of his older segments that viewers can get plenty of away from his channel.
As Colbert becomes a worthy ratings adversary, Fallon still has the edge online. But just barely.
When looking at videos online by both channels from Jan. 30-Feb. 3, the first week that Colbert beat Fallon, it’s close. When calculated, Fallon had 32.8 million total views to Colbert’s 32.6 million. According to Social Blade, a site that measures growth across social media channels, The Late Show’s channel gets more daily views, although The Tonight Show still has it beat in most other areas.
Of course, the ratings bump might not last. When asked by the New York Times in a pre-Oscars Q&A, Kimmel, who directly competes with Fallon and Colbert, said Fallon would return to the top. (For one, Fallon’s lead-in series, The Voice, will soon return to TV.) If nothing else, the ratings tug might be enough to get Fallon’s creativity flowing to reinvent the game he dominated for so long.
Maybe then, he’ll start to win his audience back.