It’s not supposed to happen anymore. One of the realities of life in the hyper-paced, omni-connected world, where information comes at us so quickly that it feels like overload, is that very little actually sticks. Even before the ascendance of the Trump era, the turnover rate when it came to a cultural mini-quake over a shocking or outrageous event was pretty quick, with maybe the best analogy being that we behaved like a school of piranha, moving in quickly, frenziedly stripping a topic bare in no time, then just as quickly moving on to something else of interest. Since the inauguration of Donald Trump, though — and maybe befitting his own minuscule attention span — the space between eruptions of shock and outrage has dwindled down to almost nothing. As The Atlantic‘s Matt Ford said on Twitter last week, it’s less of a “news cycle” these days than it is the episode of Battlestar Galactica where the Cylons attack every 33 minutes.
And yet, in the age of Trump, with everything now being political, those who enabled and normalized this madness haven’t been allowed to forget their implicit or explicit collaboration. Which brings us to exactly that: an incident no one seems to be willing to forget or forgive, no matter how long ago — in relative terms — it happened or how many new cultural or political affronts have stacked up in its wake. It’s tough to imagine that an “entertainer” as toothless and insipid as Jimmy Fallon could be taken down by a single groan-inducing moment on his show, given that they come at such a regular clip and have for so long. But his instantly infamous interview with Trump back in September, the one that was punctuated by Fallon’s ubiquitous spasms of uncalled-for laughter and which ended with him playfully mussing up Trump’s ridiculous hair, now feels like a real turning point in the trajectory of Fallon’s incarnation of the legendary Tonight Show brand.
Certainly, despite some immediate displeasure over the fact that Fallon — and, let’s not forget, NBC, which maintains a tangential business relationship with Trump — had allowed someone who trafficked in racism, misogyny, nativism and fledgling tyranny to come off as a harmless and amusing cartoon character, the bomb didn’t detonate right off the bat. Considering that there was, at the time, still hope that Trump’s presidential ambitions would eventually be crushed — since America just wasn’t that fucking stupid, was it? — everyone figured Fallon’s terrible judgment would ultimately be given a pass because, well, all’s well that ends well. But now that the threat of a Trump nightmare scenario has actually become the Trump nightmare scenario, it’s especially hard to overlook Fallon’s small but consequential role in attempting to humanize this monster for mass consumption.
But of course it’s more than that. Much more. Even if Jimmy Fallon hadn’t curled up in Trump’s lap on national television like the enthusiastic but obedient little puppy he is, he’d still very likely be facing a ratings crisis right now. And that’s what this is all about: the fact that for the first time in a very long time, Jimmy Fallon isn’t the uncontested king of late night. That honor, more and more, is going to Stephen Colbert, who’s seen his once-lagging and rudderless Late Night suddenly benefit from an infusion of the kind of political and cultural chaos only Donald Trump could provide. Put simply, the election and inauguration of Trump not only thrust Colbert back into his element, it also thrust the audience back to Colbert. February 8th saw Colbert beat Fallon in the numbers for the first time since the former’s debut in 2015, and those numbers have largely remained in Colbert’s pocket ever since.
The reason why is as easy to discern as turning on your television. Colbert has been relentless in his skewering of Trump, turning his nightly network show into a less ironic, more sincere version of the show he did to so much acclaim on Comedy Central in the years before it. CBS’s decision last April to hand the reins of Late Night over to Chris Licht, at the time the executive producer of CBS This Morning — nominally, a news show — helped to right the ship and gave Colbert’s offering the kind of focus it so desperately needed. Licht, who’s a damn talented TV producer and exec by any measure, seemed to live by the credo “Let Colbert Be Colbert,” and freed him up to concentrate solely on being funny rather than having to run an entire show in addition to his hosting duties. It was, again by any measure, a stellar move by CBS.
But more than just the rise of Colbert, this is about the decline — perhaps temporarily, perhaps more — of Jimmy Fallon and his brand of jovial, juvenile humor. Fallon’s always been a hack, little more than a game show host who does impressions, but for a time, with the world spinning reliably in the correct direction every day and night, his silly celebrity games, dead-on yet personality-less impressions, incessant shout-outs to millennial cultural touchstones, and general walking-Kermit-arm-flail antics felt at least harmless if not more-than-a-little irritating. As Fallon himself implied in response to the uproar his Trump interview caused, his show is unfailingly benign and that’s an apparent point of pride for him. He’s aiming for the people you hate most on Facebook to endlessly share his vapid bits, not to make you think — even for a second. If anyone is offended by anything Fallon does, ever, he’d probably write him or her a personal letter of apology.
But that kind of thing might not fly in the era of Trump — and that’s only good news for us. More than at any point in modern history, we’re going to need our artists, comics, musicians, and creatives to tap into their savagery. We no longer have the luxury of giggling like children at Jimmy Fallon and Chris Christie doing “The Evolution of Dad Dancing,” not when there’s so much at stake. Unlike past political predicaments America has seen itself submerged in, this one really does feel like it’s drowning us. Trump has made his chaos and madness inescapable and therefore we’re going to rely on smart, incisive criticism — even from the typical banality of our late night comedy — to help us laugh at it. Not avoid it, because it’s unavoidable, but laugh specifically at it. Not only does this help us, but it has the added benefit of getting under the thin skin of the man-child who’s handed us this mess on a garish gold platter.
On Thursday night, Fallon revived his boilerplate Trump impression and used it to parody Trump’s batshit crazy press conference earlier in the day. Calling it a parody is about as charitable as one can be, given that it relied mostly on superficial broad strokes, with Fallon, as usual, mimicking Trump’s look and mannerisms more than communicating — or God forbid mocking — the essence of who Trump actually is. For someone who looks genuinely anxious doing anything that might be considered “edgy,” it represented yet another low for Fallon, a flop-sweaty acknowledgement that, well, he has to say something about Trump — doesn’t he? — but also an unwillingness to actually take a bite out of the topic at hand, the topic everyone is talking about because we haven’t even been given a chance to take a breath and do otherwise since Trump took office. It showcased everything awful about Fallon and highlighted why his brand of alleged comedy, which aims strictly for the childlike surprise and dopey nostalgia receptors of the brain, now feels so out of place in our culture.
When reality becomes its own parody and even the most biting satire doesn’t seem like it can cut through the insanity, the last thing we need is comedy that pretends everything is normal, even if only through its inability to be funnier than what we see around us every single day. Jimmy Fallon was never much of a talent. Now, though, he’s the one who comes off as a bad, even, ironically, offensive — and suddenly irrelevant — joke.