Jimmy Fallon has never been a fan of talking about politics.
“It’s just not what I do,” Fallon said in an interview last October, when asked about the pressure to be in the “anti-Trump lane” like so many of his fellow late-night TV hosts. “I don’t really even care that much about politics. I love pop culture more than I love politics.”
Yet as has happened so many times over the past two years, the two collided on Sunday night when President Trump lobbed a tweet at Fallon, criticizing him for his public regrets about the famous “hair tousle” interview.
“@jimmyfallon is now whimpering to all that he did the famous ‘hair show’ with me (where he seriously messed up my hair), & that he would have now done it differently because it is said to have ‘humanized’ me-he is taking heat,” Trump tweeted. “He called & said ‘monster ratings.’ Be a man Jimmy!”
Someone must have showed Trump Fallon’s new interview with the Hollywood Reporter‘s “Awards Chatter” podcast, where he sounded even more upset than usual while discussing the heat he took for his infamous 2016 softball interview with Trump on “The Tonight Show,” where he mussed Trump’s hair. Afterward, many were furious that Fallon helped “normalize” the extremely controversial presidential candidate.
“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,'” Fallon said. “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.”
Fallon, who added he “did not do it to ‘normalize’ him or to say I believe in his political beliefs,” tweeted in response to Trump on Sunday: “In honor of the President’s tweet I’ll be making a donation to RAICES in his name,” he wrote, name-checking the Texas organization that offers legal aid to immigrant families.
Recently, Fallon has started to address the political climate, as when he invited transgender comedian Patti Harrison on the show after Trump announced his plan to ban transgender people from the military, and comedian Julio Torres to talk about the DACA deal. He’s also had emotional on-air responses to such tragedies as the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., (he was a surprise guest speaker at the school’s graduation in June), and encouraged people to join the March for Our Lives, which he attended. He did the same after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.
“Even though ‘The Tonight Show’ isn’t a political show, it’s my responsibility to stand up against intolerance and extremism as a human being,” said Fallon, who added that he watched the news coverage of Charlottesville and was “sick to my stomach.”
But he has largely declined to address Trump, aside from monologue jokes — and now, it doesn’t even matter. Because Trump has ensnared him anyway.
This can’t be the ideal scenario for Fallon: Even before he took over “The Tonight Show” from Jay Leno in February 2014, he emphasized that he would stay away from politics. “Mr. Fallon acknowledged that his ‘Tonight’ will not be a place to go — at least initially — for hard-hitting interviews with politicians or celebrities dealing with some unpleasantness,” the New York Times wrote in a profile. “If that means taking criticism for soft interviews, Mr. Fallon said, so be it.”
“The political stuff? Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, they have it. And Stephen Colbert, who is an animal. He’s amazing,” Fallon said at the time. “Those guys are good at it. I don’t want to mess with that.”
He held firm to that strategy, even when the warning about criticism proved prophetic. As Fallon stayed away from the political sphere, sticking to his usual games and goofy interviews, his late-night cohorts pivoted hard in the other direction. “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” “Late Night With Seth Meyers” and “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” devote much of their time to comedic and serious takedowns of Trump and his policies.
Colbert in particular has seen a big ratings boost. Although “The Tonight Show” used to regularly beat “The Late Show,” the latter took a commanding lead this spring. Vulture reported that, according to Nielsen first-quarter ratings this year, “The Late Show” was in first place with 4 million overall viewers, while “The Tonight Show” had 2.8 million. (“Jimmy Kimmel Live” was in third place with 2.3 million.)
While “The Tonight Show” remained ahead in the under-50 demographic, the frequent thinking is that Fallon’s aversion to politics has allowed his competitors to leap ahead. Fallon has consistently explained why he won’t give in to political material, particularly with a negative angle:
September 2016, to TMZ after the Trump interview backlash: “Have you seen my show? I’m never too hard on anyone.”
May 2017, to the New York Times, after explaining that he wished he had addressed the Trump interview backlash on-air: “I tossed and turned for a couple of weeks, but I have to make people laugh. People that voted for Trump watch my show as well.”
October 2017, to Willie Geist on “Today”: “With Trump, it’s just like every day is a new thing. He gives a lot of material. A lot of stuff is hard to make a joke about because it’s just too serious.”
Although he’s now primed for a potentially big audience Monday night as viewers tune in to see how — or if — he responds (a “Tonight Show” publicist did not say whether he’ll address the tweet), this probably isn’t the kind of spotlight Fallon wants. But as Trump has repeatedly proven, he can turn any pop culture situation into a political controversy.