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On ‘Saturday Night Live,’ Jimmy Fallon stays soft on Trump

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This post has been updated.

Jimmy Fallon is still a comedian on an island.

Hosting “Saturday Night Live,” the “Tonight Show” star stayed away from the kind of cutting political satire that has come to characterize “SNL” in recent months and which his late-night peers have embraced.

Fallon portrayed White House senior adviser Jared Kushner in the cold open, sporting the blazer-and-flak-jacket combo that President Trump's son-in-law wore on recent trip to Iraq. Fallon delivered no lines, a reference to Kushner's apparent aversion to public speaking. Alec Baldwin, playing President Trump, held a reality-TV-style elimination ceremony in which he chose Kushner over chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, depicted as the grim reaper.

It was a pretty tame sketch that continues a pattern of Fallon handling Trump with care. He took a little heat during the presidential campaign for going easy on Trump (most memorably when he tousled the billionaire's hair) but Fallon was in good company — and on top of the late-night ratings. As I observed last spring, ABC's Jimmy Kimmel also had “mostly stuck to surface-level gags” about Trump. For the bulk of the race, “Saturday Night Live” was pretty gentle, too, even inviting Trump to host the show during the Republican primary season.

In February, however, Kimmel hosted an Academy Awards show laced with political commentary, including his own.

“I want to say thank you to President Trump,” he said during his opening monologue. “I mean, remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?”

Since Baldwin began impersonating Trump during the final weeks of the election, “SNL” has developed a sharp edge and seemed to deliberately push the president's buttons by casting women as male members of his team.

Donald Trump didn't like that Sean Spicer was played by a woman on 'Saturday Night Live.' Don't act surprised.

What's more, Trump-bashing Stephen Colbert has started outdrawing Fallon on a consistent basis, since Inauguration Day.

Melissa McCarthy returned to “SNL” as Sean Spicer this weekend, skewering the White House press secretary for claiming earlier in the week that Adolf Hitler refrained from using chemical weapons during World War II, even though he used poison gas to kill millions of Jews and others in concentration camps — or “concentration clubs,” as McCarthy-as-Spicer called them. In real life, Spicer referred to “Holocaust centers” during a press briefing.

McCarthy's performance was far more provocative than anything Fallon did.

Fallon, who generally shies away from political commentary, is now an anomaly. His neutrality — theoretically an ideal quality for a broadcast network trying to appeal to a broad audience — is not reaping the ratings rewards it once did.

Recall that Fallon made an “SNL” cameo in October, in which he made light of the perception that he is friendly with Trump. He dressed in drag to play a white female voter from suburban Philadelphia named Doreen Troilo and was joined by Tina Fey, who played Troilo's friend, Denise McDonough. Fallon-as-Troilo claimed to be undecided about whom to vote for, which led to this exchange:

McDONOUGH: Whatever. You love Trump.
TROILO: I don't love Trump.
McDONOUGH: Yeah? Well, stop acting like you do. Everyone thinks you love Trump. You're always like ...
TROILO: I did it one time. Get off my bra strap, cool police. I don't like Trump. I don't like that he called Alicia Machado fat.

The implication was that Fallon was speaking for himself, not merely for his character. Still, condemning Trump's alleged shaming of the former Miss Universe wasn't terribly bold.

Fallon certainly doesn't have to follow the comedic crowd and pile on Trump. He has his own style and might believe that staying down the middle is the smart, long-term play. He might be right.

But anyone looking for Fallon to get tougher on the president was likely disappointed on Saturday.

From press secretary Sean Spicer's comments about the show to the president angrily tweeting about Alec Baldwin, here is Donald Trump's history with SNL. (Video: Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)