It’s become pretty easy to take shots at Jimmy Fallon. I certainly had some harsh words for the guy when I put together my 2017 late night Year in Review. We know what his problems are: Colbert is passing him in the ratings, his endless string of Wacky Celebrity Games is wearing thin, and oh yeah, no one’s forgetting about him tousling Donald Trump’s hair anytime soon. But while Fallon has fallen on hard times, it’s still far too soon to assume his late night career is over. Fallon has the capability to make it back to the top, but in order to get there, he’ll need to make some serious alterations to his approach. At the end of 2017, we saw some indications that he might finally be headed in the right direction.
Yamaneika Saunders has become quite a welcome presence on the show. After Doug Jones’s upset victory over Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race, she explored the role black women played in Jones’s victory. Elsewhere, she delivered a great rant about the controversy over Santa’s ethnicity, positing that he must be white because how else could he get away with breaking and entering? Saunders’s bits have added new perspective to The Tonight Show, and they could be the key to solving Fallon’s biggest conundrum: in the Trump era, being apolitical isn’t really an option. At the same time, people don’t necessarily tune in to Jimmy Fallon to hear his latest political take. Letting writers and correspondents like Saunders and Patti Harrison handle the political comedy could take the burden off Fallon’s back, while also giving the show a chance to elevate marginalized voices.
Fallon’s show has also seen a noteworthy increase in absurdist humor. Writer Jo Firestone has been responsible for some of the The Tonight Show’s most gleefully eccentric bits. There were her hilarious turns as Betsy DeVos, Miss Backup Ohio, and Melania Trump’s body double, and her great “What to Buy” segment, where she encouraged people to buy such gifts as the Football Snack Dispenser and the Barbarian Octopus Beanie. Even when doing a more conventional on-the-street type bit, like this Mother’s Day segment, she brings an undeniably charming weirdness to the proceedings. Firestone is one of The Tonight Show’s biggest assets, and it would benefit immensely if it used her even more.
The show has also gotten a nice infusion of surrealism from Saturday Night Live writer Julio Torres, who gave us such Halloween costume ideas as “Raccoon Foolishly Wearing All the Diamonds He Stole” and “Turtle Who Just Told Off Another Turtle, But Now Has to Turn Away Very Slowly.” Torres also applied his avant-garde sense of humor to a more serious cause: defending DACA against President Trump’s plans to repeal it (“The other day I was covered completely in glitter holding a little crystal pyramid wondering how to incorporate it into my act and I thought ‘Oh, I’m sorry, is this one of the many good jobs I’m stealing from hardworking Americans?’”). This a fine example of the show delving into politics without sounding preachy or out of its depth. With Saturday Night Live sketches like “Wells For Boys” and “Papyrus,” Torres has brought much-needed originality to a rather by-the-numbers era of the comedic institution. While that might be his main gig, it would be encouraging to see him continue to do the same for The Tonight Show. Rightfully or not, The Tonight Show has a reputation as being a home for predictable, conventional comedy. Torres and Firestone give it an experimental bent that could go a long way in making it also appointment viewing for comedy nerds.
In spite of these encouraging developments, however, The Tonight Show remains in the critical ruts. Part of this might have a bit to do with viewers being unwilling to move on from the disastrous Trump interview, but a bigger reason is that these inspired bits remain the exception to the rule. On a given night, Fallon is probably going to simply give us his usual round of consumer comedy. He’ll schmooze with his celebrity guests and play some needlessly complicated game with the cast of some Amazon Prime show you keep hearing about, but have never actually watched. The “Fun Games with Celebs” approach to late night is wearing thin, and if Fallon’s staff de-emphasizes that aspect of the show and focuses their attention on writing clever, inspired material, they could win over a lot of the people who see Fallon’s show as being nothing more than mere fluff. Really, the solution to Fallon’s problems could lie in him sharing the spotlight with other comedic presences who can take the show to new, bold places.
It’s been a rough year and a half for Fallon. After establishing himself as king of late night in 2015, he’s losing the ratings war to Stephen Colbert, and Jimmy Kimmel is breathing down his neck. His role in normalizing Donald Trump damaged his reputation significantly, and he’s still recovering. That being said, there’s a simple solution to all his problems: Be daring, take risks, and give voices to people who wouldn’t otherwise have them more often. The commentary of Saunders and Harrison, and the hilarious material of Firestone and Torres, are a very promising start.