As measured by Nielsen, Jimmy Fallon is the undisputed king of late-night TV. He’s built his (very considerable) ratings lead by carving out a clear identity as Mr. Nice Guy, the unthreatening “host next door” who just wants to kibitz and chill with any celebrity, newsmaker, or politician who stops by his Rockefeller Center studio. So it was not at all surprising that when Donald Trump stopped by The Tonight Show on Thursday, Fallon would decide to do something as silly as playfully muss the Republican presidential nominee’s famous tuft of orange hair. Less predictable, considering Trump has done Fallon and other late-night shows before: The massive freak-out that took place on political Twitter. The Atlantic’s James Fallow followed up Friday with a post declaring Fallon’s “humoring” of the candidate as “a bad move, a destructive and self-indulgent mistake.” You almost have to go back to 1959, when Jack Paar flew to Cuba to interview Fidel Castro for The Tonight Show just weeks after he came to power, to come up with another example of so many Americans being riled by a late-night host coddling a dictator in the making.
At first blush, it might seem strange there would be such a backlash to Fallon since, as noted, he’s hosted Trump before and was similarly nonconfrontational. (Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel haven’t been much tougher on Trump when he’s done their shows.) What may have made a difference last night was timing: The election is now less than two months away. Sensitivities are heightened all around. Those who oppose Trump, on both the left and the right, are nervous about polls showing a closer race. And Fallon didn’t just joke around with Trump or put him in a lame sketch. He literally laid hands on the man, petting his hair like he was your adorable crazy uncle you see once a year. If you’re a suburban Republican woman who’d been worried supporting Trump would mean endorsing all those -isms in Hillary Clinton’s basket of deplorables, Nice Guy Jimmy gave you permission to feel okay about voting for the man who says not-nice things.
Fallon and his producers, of course, no doubt see things very differently. Presidential candidates have been dropping by late-night TV shows since John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon both did Paar’s show in 1960. Paar did real interviews with Kennedy and Nixon, but any such expectation of even pseudo-journalistic grilling from network late-night hosts died off decades ago. And the contenders have been goofing off with hosts since at least 1992, when Bill Clinton played the sax on The Arsenio Hall Show. (Cable’s fake news shows, of course, are a different matter.) The whole reason politicians (or regular celebs, for that matter) do TV talk shows these days is to show off their more human side. Hillary Clinton’s own late-night visits have been similar love fests. (She’s taping a Tonight Show appearance on Friday that’s set to air Monday.) If you’re Fallon today, or one of his producers, you’re probably thinking, “What did we do differently this time?”
It’s a reasonable response (though, for the record, a Fallon PR rep declined comment on the matter). Fact is, Fallon didn’t do anything out of the ordinary in late-night history. Thursday’s shenanigans fell well within the bounds of modern talk-show puffery. What’s different, of course, is Trump. How offended you are by Fallon’s actions depends on whether you see the GOP nominee as simply his party’s standard-bearer, or something more — something worse. Fallon (and his boss, Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels) clearly have decided Trump fits into the former category. It’s a decision they’ll own, whatever the results of November’s decision. It doesn’t make Fallon a Trump sympathizer or supporter, but it will stand as a statement of where he stood at a key moment in history.
Decades after he left The Tonight Show, Paar, too, had to accept history’s judgment on his interview choices. When Paar visited Castro, there were many Americans concerned that a Communist-leaning revolutionary had just overthrown Cuban president Fulgencio Batista, a key U.S. ally. Paar, however, aligned himself with another portion of American thought, one that believed Castro was a man of the people, a noble revolutionary looking to Make Cuba Great Again. “I went down there really enthused,” Paar recalled at a 1984 Museum of Broadcasting seminar. “I’m just a naive guy. I thought it was good he had kicked Batista out.” Paar got into even more hot water two years later, when he took The Tonight Show to Germany, where the Berlin Wall was just going up. His visit forced the Department of Defense to investigate the use of government resources to help Paar’s broadcasts, which some saw as supporting the cause of Communism. New York Times critic Jack Gould denounced Paar in strong terms over the Berlin trip: “Mr. Paar’s credentials as the country’s foremost emotional child in dealing with matters of serious import long have been common knowledge,” Gould sneered. “NBC obviously cannot prevent Mr. Paar from going anywhere he wants, but it is not under obligation to put on the air the tape results of all his antics.” A half-century later, Paar’s actions don’t seem all that controversial: He was simply letting his viewers witness what was going on in the world. It’s far too soon to know how history will judge Fallon.
Disclosure: Adalian is a registered Democrat who has contributed to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.