Today’s NYT published an account of the quiet crisis at The Tonight Show, on a ratings decline since Donald Trump’s inauguration. The piece strongly suggests — and Fallon does not deny — that Trump’s appearance last fall, in which Fallon asked fawning questions and concluded with a hair rub, had stronger cultural power than expected.
Speaking in a quiet, tentative tone, Mr. Fallon seemed to be reliving the experience as he recounted it.
“I’m a people pleaser,” 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.”
But when the backlash did not subside, even after a few days, Mr. Fallon never addressed the controversy on air. “I didn’t talk about it, and I should have talked about it,” he said. “I regret that.”
As the most casual of late night comedy consumers — I’ve watched Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer exactly once and don’t often laugh at other things friends post — I don’t have much sympathy for Fallon, a comic whom I know for his Nick Lachey impersonation on Saturday Night Live and not much else. But he’s using the Jon Stewart Argument: a disingenuous whitewash, a path to retreat should the critics come for him (“Hey, man, I’m just a comedian”). Cracking jokes at a presidents expense is a political act — a mild one, acceptable when done in an ecumenical fashion, but a political act nonetheless. Comedians can no more control the times than artists. If the times require a ruthless skewering for which Fallon is unsuited, then he better stop skewering, period.