Looking at Twitter's reaction to Donald Trump's appearance on The Tonight Show last night, three themes emerge: (1) I can't believe how terrible Jimmy Fallon was; (2) he did a great job interviewing our beloved future president, get off his back, liberals; (3) LOL, did you just now realize that Jimmy Fallon sucks? Good or bad (it was bad), it doesn't matter, last night will be remembered as when Fallon went from a person some people thought was obsequious to someone a lot of people think is undeniably shitty — all while not affecting his large ratings one bit. In other words, last night Jimmy Fallon became Jay Leno.
Every year, for the last 20 years, comedian Andy Kindler has acted as the comedy world's ombudsman of sorts, giving a "State of the Industry" speech at the Montreal Just for Laughs festival. Kindler is a Letterman guy, and jokes about Jay Leno have always been a major part of his speech. Ever since Fallon got Late Night, and then replaced Leno at The Tonight Show, Fallon has been a primary target for Kindler.
Jokes like this one from this year's festival — "Before going on the show, candidates will have to ask themselves, 'How will making balloon animals affect my image?'" — reflect that, to the most discerning comedy audiences, Fallon has always been a hack. Other examples include a Conan writer's Twitter rant that called Fallon "prom-king comedy." Or a joke on this season of Difficult People that said that Jimmy Fallon turned "The Tonight Show into a kid's birthday party." Maybe most severe was Fallon getting hit by a bus on BoJack Horseman.
Still, this assessment never seemed to cross over to non-comedy insiders — until last night. Here are some of the responses from journalists:
I don't fault Jimmy Fallon for not being a journalist. I do fault him for his willingness to serve as hell's court jester.— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) September 16, 2016
why is jimmy fallon only getting dragged for being an evil jester NOW? the man loosed the plague of lip sync battle upon Earth.— Kate Knibbs (@KateKnibbs) September 16, 2016
I'm more surprised that Jimmy Fallon didn't challenge Trump's hair to a game of Boggle or something— Drew Magary (@drewmagary) September 16, 2016
Jimmy Fallon's really living up to that Leno legacy.— Scott Wampler (@LimitedPaper) September 16, 2016
Fallon's inoffensiveness has become offensive to cultural elites; his harmlessness is now a liability. For Leno, the perception that he stole The Tonight Show from Letterman brought a sourness to people's view of his frivolousness. Fallon's Trump interview will create a similarly bad taste that will probably linger, unlike other backlash that hasn't. Even when years pass and many forget this specific incident, the effect it has on the perception of him will likely stick.
And like Leno, it will likely have no effect on The Tonight Show's ratings. There's a quote attributed to Michael Jordan (that has been disputed): "Republicans buy sneakers, too." Well, they also watch TV. Being perceived as overly partisan, especially in an election year, essentially cuts your potential audience in half. And currently Fallon gets about twice the viewership of his competitors. Will the interview hurt his standing with liberals? Of course. But he will still get guests because of his ratings and because they know he'll make it easy for them. Just like Leno. Now, we just need to see what he looks like in all denim.