“I don’t fucking care if you like it.”
Amy Poehler uttered those words to Jimmy Fallon when, new to the SNL writers’ room, she pitched a character who was, in the words of Tina Fey, “dirty, loud, and ‘unladylike.’” Fallon said to her, “Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it,” which Amy refuted with her eight-word mantra.
I bring this exchange up because it’s gone viral in the wake of The New York Times profile of Jimmy Fallon, who, struggling in the ratings since his now-infamous Donald Trump interview, has revealed himself to be the clueless dolt many had assumed he was from the beginning (or knew him to be from that quote, published originally in Fey’s 2011 memoir Bossypants.) Like the main character of the great movie Mephisto, Fallon has assumed that sucking up to power would help his career, when instead, to quote the late, great Chez Pazienza, “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.”
In the profile, Fallon speaks out about the controversy for the first time, but still seems unable to understand why his actions were perceived as offensive, calling it “a setback, if not quite a mistake.” His non-apology apology – “if I let anyone down, it hurt my feelings that they didn’t like it,” sounds like something a politician says after they’re caught cheating on their wife. “I don’t want to be bullied into not being me,” he says, “and not doing what I think is funny.”
It’s been said before that what Fallon did “normalized” Donald Trump, a totally merited critique. By running his fingers through his stupid comb over, Fallon thought he was minimizing Trump, but Trump’s agreeing to being the butt of the joke instead made people warm up to him. It didn’t sway the election, but it was one of a series of NBC blunders throughout that month (the Matt Lauer incident was about a week prior to this) where Trump got to walk away scot-free while Hillary was thrown into the lion’s den. Compare his treatment of Trump to his Hillary interview a week later, where he greets her while wearing a surgical mask after her pneumonia. He had no idea how negative stories stuck to her in a way they couldn’t with him…because, you know, her emails.
If anybody came out of that interview with their dignity intact (and I wish people wrote more about this), it was Questlove and The Roots, who trolled Trump by playing Erykah Badu’s “20 Feet Tall,” a song that includes the lyric “Then you, you built a wall/A 20-foot-wall, so I couldn’t see.” Everybody loves Questlove, and his gig as Fallon’s bandleader has helped to lend the otherwise bland Tonight Show some cultural cache outside of Heartland America. The Trump interview was a perfect illustration of the awkward position African Americans are forced into when they are confronted with flesh-and-blood racists. I only hope Barack Obama had them in mind when he sat in the Oval Office next to the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief.
Fallon expresses surprise that the backlash lasted as long as it did, and “regrets” not talking about it sooner. He claims he “tossed and turned for a couple of weeks, but I have to make people laugh…People that voted for Trump watch my show as well.” OK, fine. He’s an admitted people pleaser and it hurts him to think that he offended anyone, so much that he admits he couldn’t go on Twitter afterwards because of the hate (Do you hear that? It’s a woman of color playing a sad song on the world’s smallest violin.) But couldn’t Fallon see that treating Trump as the underdog in the wake of the WikiLeaks/DNC email hack, Hillary’s “basket of deplorables” speech, the Matt Lauer interviews and the pneumonia incident wasn’t the best idea?
It seems that the fish rots from the head down at NBCUniversal. I wrote yesterday about MSNBC’s transformation into a nicer Fox News thanks to chairman Andy Lack, but I didn’t mention Lack’s superior, Steven Burke, a Republican born with a silver spoon in his mouth (his father, Daniel Burke, bought ABC in 1985 before merging it with Disney.) If Burke’s OK with Lack hiring asshat conservatives, he’s also OK with Fallon cuddling up to demagogues. The Times article says that “he spoke with Mr. Fallon in the weeks after the Trump interview uproar and encouraged the host to keep moving forward.”
This proves once again how NBCUniversal misreads the tea leaves. There are comedians who can be hysterical without ideology, but the legacy of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Joan Rivers comes from deep anger at the status quo and a desire to change it. With John Oliver, Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert attacking politicians every night, and Samantha Bee’s Not the White House Correspondents Dinner cementing her status as a force to bed reckoned with, who cares if Fallon can make a music video of Smash Mouth’s “All Star” with Star Wars characters?
Since the inauguration, Fallon has attempted to move into political comedy, but his Trump impersonation is a feeble attempt to capture what Robert Smigel, Alec Baldwin, and now Anthony Atamanuik have done so well for the last year and shows how he’s now behind the eight ball, playing catch-up to the comedians redefining both how we get our news and how we understand our current moment. Burke’s attitude may be to let Jimmy be Jimmy, and Fallon seems happy to do just that, but those of us who recognize his hackery for what it are moving on. And we don’t fucking care if you don’t like it.
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.