Jimmy Fallon is finally opening up about the hair tousle seen'round the world, in a New York Times profile, out Wednesday.
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, late night television has become a mouthpiece for the resistance—as Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah have all seen their ratings spike the more they go after the president. It’s no coincidence that as late night’s most apolitical host, Fallon’s ratings have tumbled.
The moment Fallon lost America occurred during his now infamous interview with then-candidate Donald Trump, which saw Fallon lob him softball questions before capping the segment by ruffling Trump’s hair.
While his ratings and reputation eroded, Fallon remained tight-lipped about the incident, a decision he now regrets. “I didn’t talk about it, and I should have talked about it,” Fallon told the New York Times in a new profile. “I regret that.”
One thing Fallon doesn’t regret is his decision to stay in his lane despite Colbert closing the once Grand Canyon-sized gap in the ratings. Part of that decision Fallon says, was based on him waning to stay true to the Tonight Show’s nonpartisan legacy, and to his own comedic sensibilities.
“Jimmy is not a political comedian, so it would be very phony of him to go out and do long political joke rants just because that’s what some people want,” Tina Fey told the Times. “The Tonight Show has historically been a friendly, light show.”
Despite his desire to remain neutral, Fallon learned that in this highly politicized time, refusing to pick a side can be toxic. Fallon said that he played with Trump’s hair to “minimize” him rather than “humanize” him. But it was Fallon’s own callowness that blinded him from the fact clowning around with a man who helped spawn the birther movement, and whose racist rhetoric was emboldening white supremacists nationwide, probably wasn’t the best idea.
Fallon, who describes himself as a “people pleaser,” was crestfallen by the backlash. “I go, I just can’t read Twitter. Then I can’t read the news. I can’t read the internet,” he said. “If there’s one bad thing on Twitter about me, it will make me upset. So, after this happened, I was devastated. I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just trying to have fun.”
Fallon now finds himself in a difficult position. If he starts attacking Trump, it might come off as a disingenuous ratings ploy. But if he sticks with the YouTube-friendly, celebrity-heavy fluff that made him a ratings juggernaut pre-Trump, he risks further alienating the crucial 18-49 demographic.
Fallon said that he “tossed and turned for a couple of weeks” over whether or not to pivot and eventually decided to stay in his lane. “People that voted for Trump watch my show as well,” he said. “There’s only so many bits you can do. I’m happy that only 50 percent of my monologue is about Trump.”
So will Fallon’s sunny brand of humor still play in the age of Trump? The good news is there’s still a large chunk of America that doesn’t go to late night TV for a blistering dose of the day’s maddening headlines. They watch for escapism, which is exactly what Fallon provides.
At the height of the ratings war between Leno and Letterman, Leno was happy telling milquetoast jokes to middle America. Letterman played the perfect counterpoint—a gap-toothed curmudgeon whose alternative approach to comedy appealed to the coastal cool kids. Fallon—who was once the epitome of mainstream—is suddenly the outsider, which could work to his advantage.
Sticking to his guns won’t endear Fallon to the anti-Trump set, but if the President does get impeached, it might be Fallon who has the last laugh.