We now have 6 major nightly shows (5 on network television). And that excludes the daytime shows, internet, and comedy-news shows (The Daily Show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and weekly Real Time and Last Week Tonight). It’s no surprise that the once dominant Tonight Show now suffers from an identity crisis, one not aided by host Jimmy Fallon.
It is undeniable that producing a nightly talk show is far more difficult than it appears when it hits TV screens at night (or computer screens in the morning). They have to provide content on a nightly basis, are dependent on the grind of celebrities on promotional tours, and are at the mercy of current events. And as the influx of talk shows have continued to grow, each show demands a unique personality and tone to define what and who they are.
The recent piece by the New York Times largely points to Fallon’s interview with Donald Trump as the cause of his sliding ratings. To accept an interview with the one-time reality show host turned President of the United States was seen by some as an outrageous display of his lack of awareness of current events. But even now, despite the fluff interview punctuated with Fallon ruffling Trump’s hair like a rascally child, it isn’t Fallon’s apolitical approach to comedy that remains disappointing…it’s how insipid his stint as the host of The Tonight Show has been.
The New York Times piece suggests that ratings rival Stephen Colbert’s decision to include more pointed political humor since the election of Trump caters to the political infotainment culture dominating all forms of media at the moment. And Colbert’s ratings have seen a massive increase since the election. But watching both shows before and after Trump, we’ve seen something else. Since returning to political humor, Colbert has become a better host with a more defined personality. His slightly nerdy but educated persona suits the acidic humor he once tried to tamp down when leaving Comedy Central for CBS, trying to have “broad appeal” in the network game. He’s thrown such pretense away, and while he may rub some the wrong way, the audience he is finding has become more loyal.
Likewise, since adding more news content to his show, Fallon’s NBC follow-up, Seth Meyers, seems far less stiff on screen than he’d been initially. The confidence he brings to the show nightly with segments like “A Closer Look” extend through the rest of his comedy and interviews. Once lacking a connection with his guests (unless he knew them personally), he now seems to have an understanding of how to engage conversations without coming across as the frequently disingenuous Fallon.
The argument that Fallon makes now, is that his apolitical stance is an intentional attempt to ease his audience away from the day’s political worries, a take which isn’t wrong or without merit. Many of us, even political junkies, find the anxiety of the current news cycle crushing in our daily lives. Escapism is fine, even good, at the end of the day. But just as there are good and bad forms of pop music and blockbuster entertainment, there are quality levels to escapist nightly shows. Unlike the days of Carson, when he literally had NO competitors, Fallon isn’t the only host providing escapism, with hosts like Jimmy Kimmel, James Corden, and Conan O’Brien all providing far less political content in their humor than Meyers or Colbert…without displaying the lack of maturity we’ve seen from Fallon on a nightly basis. Jay Leno, a defender of Fallon’s, claims that Jimmy is most likely to be the “successor” to Carson. But even when Leno’s incarnation of the Tonight Show was silly, it was always clearly run by an adult aware of the world around him.
Fallon still does topical opening monologues on current events, but the humor he and his writers bring seems to lack a basic understanding of the news. For example, the news of Trump’s possible leaks to Russia earlier this week brought extended bathroom jokes and an unfunny sketch about how tiring Trump’s news coverage has been. While Meyer’s level of depth into this issue may be overkill for some late night viewers, watching how the other hosts processed the same news provides a spotlight on the lack of interest from Fallon and his writing staff. Even if Conan, Corden, or Kimmel do just one joke about the presidency in their monologue, the content seems far more intelligent and constructed, than any of Fallon’s throw-away political humor.
The argument that Fallon wants to provide a fun and light program for the masses has merit. Having humor which can cross political party lines and comment on current events as singular events without making it part of the debate isn’t just important, it’s vital to improving the divided American culture we see. A major reason we see the split in the country we have now, are the complaints that the mass media doesn’t just bury the conservative and rural views of Americans…they don’t even seem to acknowledge their existence. And while the entertainment world may be dominated by liberal, left-leaning celebrities…that doesn’t include everyone. Nor does everyone want to be defined first and foremost by their political party. Many people, even celebrities, don’t fit perfectly into one side or the other. Acknowledging that aspect of society while still commenting of the day’s absurdism from a moderate perspective could help the culture heal. But it would take skilled writers.
But while Fallon speaks of wanting to have a show that appeals to the masses– those underserved by his competitors– what he’s really providing is a show that patronizes that audience and has been so watered down for advertisers, that it lacks a distinct personality. It’s true that his humor is rarely offensive, but it’s also rarely funny. His personal comments reveal little of himself to the audience. And his interviews are too often shallow moments of him fawning over celebrities and laughing unnaturally, rather than putting them truly at ease.
The few instances where Fallon has revealed something of himself, taken a risk, truly have been entertaining…it’s perhaps the reason his dependency on unrehearsed games and competitions work best on his show. But those moments are few and far between. And one of the revealing elements of that New York Times article came not from his comments on the Trump interview or politics, but trying to fix what could have been a candid and humanizing mistake made during a taping. In an editing suite, finishing touches were being made to a segment in which Mr. Fallon, Kevin Bacon and the country singer Chris Stapleton impersonated the Texas rock band ZZ Top. Before the taping, a guitar that was supposed to spin around Mr. Stapleton’s waist had broken, and Mr. Fallon was hoping there was footage from their dress rehearsal to cover this up.
Fallon was well known on SNL for his tendency to break and roll with live mistakes. It could be grating when he did it to milk laughs for a bit that wasn’t successful. But when it came from a real place and showed a moment of spontaneity, it could also be delightful and endear his audience to him. That personality that made Fallon the one- time “Prince of SNL” seems nearly lost to the nightly grind of the Tonight Show and childish preoccupation to be “liked.” Fallon would be correct, even admirable, to say his humor won’t change because of complaints made by the public…if only the humor he delivered weren’t already so watered down, and sanitized for public consumption.
His desire for “mass appeal” is the error we see over and over again with many comedians; a belief that one should cater to everyone, rather than find and connect with their own specific, loyal, audiences. Even the most casual talk show hosts find moments to reveal themselves to audiences and connect on a personal level. It puts them at risk of alienating some…and can also promise a stronger bond from those that stay, who will be less likely to tune out when their host hits a wrong note.
It should be mentioned that in the nightly game, Fallon’s still new to the Tonight Show (just 3 years into the job). While he had five years to learn, it’s possible that like Conan O’Brien or Jimmy Kimmel, he’s still in a period of adjustment. But if the show we have now truly is a reflection of his personality, it is a disappointingly childish, hyper, vapid one.