Last September, Jimmy Fallon had then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on his show. In a move that would be questioned by many, not only did he decline to ask Trump any difficult questions, he also tousled his world-famous hair. The gif of him doing so became popular throughout the internet, and more or less became a shorthand for Trump receiving relatively soft media coverage. When Trump won the election, people generally understood that while Fallon’s choice may have been regrettable, he was hardly the first person (or one of the first 100 people) to blame for Donald Trump becoming President. Still, the incident lingers in people’s minds, and it seems especially relevant now that Fallon’s 11:35 rival Stephen Colbert is beating him in the ratings for the first time ever.
While Fallon is still ahead with the coveted 18-49 demographic, Colbert has taken an overall lead. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to think that the ascension of Trump and the ensuing hysteria has played a role in Colbert’s increased viewership. After struggling to find a coherent identity for much of its first year on the air, Colbert’s Late Show has a clear target in Trump. Removed from his Colbert Report persona (who likely would have been pro-Trump), Colbert can tell us what he actually thinks. Admittedly, the fact that a well-known liberal isn’t a Donald Trump fan isn’t anything new, but Colbert is one of the most articulate, thoughtful political satirists working today, and his monologues do a fine job of expressing the existential dread that many have felt since Trump took office eight weeks ago. With Trump in the White House and everyone gradually understanding the ramifications of that, Fallon’s escapism no longer seems enticing. The harsh realities of the current political climate are too sharp to ignore, so viewers are flocking to Colbert because they know he’ll face those issues head-on.
Where does that leave Fallon? Rumors have circulated that in order to get his #1 spot back, he’ll attempt to be more political. It’s encouraging to see that Fallon understands where times are headed and wants to adapt to fit them, but this begs a question: is Jimmy Fallon actually capable of being political? Oh sure, he can tell jokes at the expense of Donald Trump, but if he makes a comment about Trump’s history of bigoted comments, or about his administration’s ties to Russia, will we believe that its actually coming from Fallon, or will we just figure that one of his more politically-minded writers put those words in his mouth? All late night hosts have a staff that conceives much of their material, but in the case of Colbert, he’s done more than enough over the course of his career to let us know what side he’s really on. In the case of Fallon, he’s spent his entire time as a late night host being as politically neutral as possible, and that’s when he’s been willing to even acknowledge that politics even exist. After staying out of it for so long, how does he enter the fray?
There are a few places he could go with this. He could wait for a particularly egregious Trump moment (he wouldn’t have to wait very long), and perhaps deliver a “but seriously, folks…” monologue where he talks about how he personally feels about Trump. If wanted to really Go There, he could even address the infamous hair-toussle, and possibly apologize for it. If this were to happen, the tone shift would be drastic, but it could be seen as a necessary product of the times. He could also just do what he’s doing now, and gradually slip in more political commentary. If he’s looking for a path into more politically aware show, he could look to his NBC cohort Seth Meyers. When Meyers took over for Fallon at Late Night in 2014, no one was quite sure where the show was going. With the addition of the “A Closer Look” segment, Meyers has become the second most politically aware network host after Colbert. Fallon could consider taking his show in a similar direction. It would be a considerable departure from what he does now, but with viewers flocking to his rival, he may have no choice as a result of our desperation.
It’s worth noting that there is a historical precedent here, where the undeniable harshness of reality forced an otherwise “silly” show to take a harder look at politics. That would be The Daily Show after 9/11. Jon Stewart might have mentioned politics from time-to-time before the attacks, but for the most part, the show had been more of a parody of the TV news format than a space that focused on real commentary. That changed after the attacks. In the recent oral history The Daily Show (The Book), it’s revealed that in the wake of the attacks, the producers wondered if they still even had a show, and actually considered changing the format to be a parody of morning shows. In the end, they chose to address politics directly, and as a result, Stewart’s Daily Show became the most important piece of political satire of its era. That all happened because Stewart and his staff realized that with America struggling through the wake of the attacks, escapism didn’t work anymore. At the time, Stewart’s show was the only one to take that approach; Jay Leno remained apolitical after 9/11, and it never hurt him in the ratings. Now, however, thanks to the effect of Stewart, late night hosts discussing politics and being up front about their beliefs doesn’t seem like some patently absurd concept. Rather, it’s become the norm, and Jimmy Fallon looks increasingly like the exception rather than the rule. Adjusting his show to fit the demand for political commentary would remove Fallon from his comfort zone, but if he wants to take back his spot at the top, it might be his best option.