For all of its many failings (a putrid record on diversity, an odd adherence to an antiquated formula, a deep fixation with fluff) there have been times when late night television has endeared itself to serious-minded viewers. As the world has changed and we’ve been inundated by national tragedies that leave us doubled over, late night hosts have assumed an odd yet vital role, consoling us and bringing us back to laughter. Occasionally, they also demonstrate their ability to nail an issue or tell truth to power with laser effectiveness. Because of these things, late night hosts have a seat at the table when it comes to politics and the pageant we set up every four years to pick a new president and ever-ready punchline. That seat doesn’t guarantee that they’ll make a difference, of course, but to borrow a bit from the Hippocratic oath, these late night hosts should, at the very least, strive to “first, do no harm” with that responsibility. And yet…
Donald Trump has morphed from a joke to a threat and late night comedy, on the whole, has been at a loss when it comes to how to deal with him. Saturday Night Live took a pretty wince-inducing hit when they let him have the run of the place for a week last season (a creative and PR train wreck), Stephen Colbert lost a touch of credibility when he took it easy on the Republican nominee, and now we have Thursday night’s Jimmy Fallon hair tousle; a great viral moment if you subtract the bile it has inspired.
Upon a mountain of two-minute YouTube clips and GIF-worthy moments, the happy-go-lucky Fallon has built an empire. It’s not highbrow, of course, but Fallon gives the people what they want and even those that don’t love him can’t hate him. Or at least, they can’t hate him for long. Because Jimmy Fallon is pure joy, even if that joy sometimes comes across as excessive or disingenuous. And so, Jimmy Fallon offends only in the gentlest of ways. Like a yappy puppy. And you can’t be mad at a puppy for yapping or piddling on the floor, can you? What did you expect? He’s a puppy.
That’s pretty much the response that a lot of people are offering with regard to Fallon’s playful moment with Trump on Thursday night. You can’t be mad at Jimmy Fallon for Jimmy Falloning, he’s Jimmy Fallon. After all, it’s not like we should have expected some kind of substantial interview or moment from the man who, on occasion, dresses up like a 13-year-old girl, mugs for the camera, and proclaims, “Ewwwwwww” beside whatever guest he’s wrangled into humiliating themselves this time.
Except, Jimmy Fallon does, from time to time, weigh in on the harsher events in our society, his eyes welling up with tears and his demeanor switching to sober seriousness. He has that capacity and enlightenment. He knows what’s up. So why did late night’s ratings champion (and it isn’t particularly close) allow himself to be a part of the Donald Trump rebranding tour? Why did he tousle his hair as though it were 1997 and that was still the most publicly recognizable thing about the man?
This isn’t really about politics, by the way, it’s about what Donald Trump has said and what he represents. Despite the tone of this f*cking dumpster fire of an election, treating people with respect — be they Mexican, Muslim, female, disabled, or whatever — isn’t supposed to be a Democrat or Republican thing. It’s one of the few common principles we’re supposed to have, but Donald Trump has, historically and also in the midst of this election, shown a totally huge and unbelievable lack of respect for that idea and for Mexicans, Muslims, women, the disabled, and those allergic to revisionist history by offering several controversial and offensive opinions and policy proposals. Which is, to put a single word button on it, sad.
Here’s the thing, though: it’s not Jimmy Fallon’s job to be the champion for people within those groups (though, it wouldn’t hurt and I’m sure a lot of people within those mentioned groups watch his show). I’m also not saying that Fallon should have rejected Trump or screamed at him on his show. But Fallon should have at least recognized, as Trump’s people surely did, that through the power of his cotton candy-esque viral clips and his gigglefest of a show, he has the power to humanize and legitimize people to a crowd that maybe doesn’t pay close attention to politics or the divisiveness that Donald Trump has breathed life into. And maybe, because of that power, Fallon could have just curbed the cuteness and done a straight interview with boring questions (like he does with most guests) instead of allowing himself to be used.
We know, of course, that that didn’t happen. Instead, those people saw the intended less prickly version of Trump and maybe that means some of those people become suggestible to the idea that Trump could and should be president. And, you know, whatever. The guy will get votes and people should consider him if they feel a connection to what he’s saying, but let’s maybe not make it so easy for the kinder and gentler rebuild of Trump to box out the fear-inducing hate monger version (from, like, an hour and a half ago) in the minds of voters. Let’s maybe not give a man who has made it hard for many good people to feel comfortable in their own country a literal pat on the head.
Jason Tabrys is the features editor for Uproxx. You can engage with him directly on Twitter.