On Wednesday night, in response to President Donald Trump’s threats to pull NBC and other networks’ broadcast licenses for negative coverage that he deems “fake news,” Jimmy Kimmel said that the time to pull those licenses is “Never. Because that’s what dictators do.” On The Tonight Show, which airs on NBC, Jimmy Fallon sidestepped the terrifying issue of a President trying to silence the free press and instead cracked a joke about people being upset over the loss of This Is Us if NBC lost its license.
Chaotic times like these often call for voices that speak with passion, clarity, and authority — even in comedy. Jimmy Fallon can’t deliver that kind of product and it might be hurting his show’s ratings. Once the late-night king, Fallon is in danger of falling to third place in total viewers (he still holds the lead in viewers under 50, though that’s slipping as well) behind Stephen Colbert (who seized first place earlier this year) and Kimmel.
It’s hard to consider Fallon a mere victim of changing cultural tides, though. Nobody put his hand on Donald Trump’s head and told him to tousle the polarizing future President’s hair in an epic misread of the cultural “room.” But while that moment made it hard to take any of his efforts to mock the Trump presidency seriously, it’s not the only reason that his show is falling in the ratings race and out of relevancy.
Even if Fallon hadn’t legitimized Trump’s effort to try and seem human, his natural comedic tendency toward silliness and half-hearted monologue jabs would have made it hard for him to take on the Trump presidency with the vigor that his competitors have brought to the task. It’s not that Fallon is waving pom-poms when Trump plays the part of the bully, punches down, or threatens free speech. He came out swinging in response to what may be Trump’s most troubling moment (the divisive and despairing “many sides” response to Charlottesville), but he knows he’s not Seth Meyers or Stephen Colbert. Jimmy Fallon’s brand is fun and games, and in a way, that’s fine. Late night shows are formulaic enough. Not everyone likes to feel as though the nightly news is bleeding into their late-night comedy and not everybody likes goofiness when it seems like the world is melting.