Back during America’s (first) Civil War, a Yankee general named John Sedgwick pretty much retired the trophy for Famous Last Words. Watching his men dodge Confederate sniper bullets during the battle of Spotsylvania, he scoffed, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist.” That’s the slapstick version, anyhow. To be fair, most historians think Sedgwick did manage to articulate both syllables of “distance” before getting shot in the face.
Once Trump consented, that’s just what he did, to screams of delight from the Tonight Show’s audience. In hindsight, though, it’s not hard to imagine the host only getting as far as “Can I mess up your ha …” before the zeitgeist’s equivalent of the Grim Reaper turned up in the wings, clutching a scythe disguised as a vaudeville hook. Treating Trump like a big plushy toy he could romp with doomed Fallon to permanent, giggly cluelessness about what Trump represented, and the host has never gotten his such-as-it-was mojo back since.
Funnily enough, he might have gotten away with it if the gesture had come off even subliminally hostile. But it didn’t, because he was Jimmy Fallon: in a tizzy, eager, beside himself with ratings-hungry giddiness. (Even on a routine night, he spends so much time beside himself that the self he’s beside is often only a dim memory.) Since his brain isn’t wired to understand that not everything can be reduced to all-in-good-fun showbiz—he’s got no other discernible metric—he must have felt blindsided when he got attacked for “humanizing” and “normalizing” an ogre whose incendiary rhetoric was already sending chills down blue-state America’s spine.
It’s not just that Stephen Colbert’s tougher-minded, more acerbic Late Show regularly outdoes Tonight’s ratings for the first time in either franchise’s history. Both Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers, despite their smaller audiences, leave Fallon choking on their dust when it comes to reliably brainy topicality. Fallon himself is undoubtedly right that swerving to imitate his competition’s sardonic political humor would be totally out of key with the namby-pamby effusiveness he specializes in. But his lack of that gene has left the Tonight Show wandering the late-night cosmos like a derelict space station stuffed with vacuous showbiz ghosts.
Last week, Fallon unburdened himself at length in a memorably doleful—not to say maundering—interview with The Hollywood Reporter. Besides telling at least one whopping fib (“I don’t really care about the ratings”), he pushed back against the idea that he’d deliberately turned Trump cuddly: “I did not do it to ‘normalize’ him or to say I believe in his political beliefs or any of that stuff.”
We don’t remember anybody calling Fallon evil. The right word was “imbecilic.”
Was there more in this bathetic vein? Of course there was. If you ask us, it’s worth listening to the audio version of this next bit, at least if you can stand its abject desolation: "You go, 'Alright, we get it. I heard you. You made me feel bad. So now what? Are you happy? I'm depressed. Do you want to push me more? What do you want me to do? You want me to kill myself? What would make you happy? Get over it.'" Then Fallon went on, "I'm sorry. I don't want to make anyone angry—I never do, and I never will. It's all in the fun of the show. I made a mistake. I'm sorry if I made anyone mad. And, looking back, I would do it differently."
For once, we can’t improve on—let alone dispute—Trump’s Twitter description of this lament: “whimpering.” We couldn’t even disagree with his closing advice to Fallon: “Be a man, Jimmy!” In between, however, because he can’t help being Trump any more than Fallon can help being Fallon, he confided that “the famous ‘hair show’” had, indeed, “seriously messed up” his hair. (Even Liberace would probably have gotten over that by now.) Then, he added the poison-barb footnote that Fallon had called him after the show to crow about “monster ratings.” But that’s pretty predictable when you host a monster.
Unexpectedly, though, Fallon took Trump’s advice. That is, he manned up, replying, “In honor of the President’s tweet, I’ll be making a donation to RAICES in his name,” and leaving it at that. RAICES, of course, is the immigrant-rights legal group that has recently raised a staggering $20 million to fight Trump’s zero-tolerance border policy. Even though how much Fallon will chip in is unknown, that’s the most forthrightly political declaration he’s ever made in his life. The Tonight Show’s host will probably never have more than a nodding acquaintance with the concept of dignity, but let’s give him credit for recognizing an opportunity to at least wave at it across a crowded room for once.