Late-night darling falls on tough times

The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon greeting fans outside Rockefeller Center in New York City earlier this month.
The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon greeting fans outside Rockefeller Center in New York City earlier this month.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • In his fourth year of hosting The Tonight Show, NBC's flagship late-night programme, Jimmy Fallon, 42, is weathering the most tumultuous period in his tenure there - a predicament for which he has himself to thank, and one that raises the question of whether the multi-talented but apolitical Fallon can ride out the current era of politicised, choose-your-side entertainment.

Once the undisputed juggernaut of the late-night category, his Tonight Show, a celebrity-friendly cavalcade of games and gags, has seen its ratings decline in recent months. Meanwhile, his politically pointed competitor Stephen Colbert, who hosts CBS' The Late Show, has closed what was once a formidable gap of nearly one million viewers.

The resurgent interest in left-leaning programming has not helped Fallon, a former star of Saturday Night Live (SNL) who has built his brand on his all-around entertainer's skills and down-the-middle tastes. And as he is well aware, viewers have not seen him in quite the same light since an interview he conducted with then United States presidential candidate Donald Trump last September, which was widely criticised for its fawning, forgiving tone. In a gesture that has come to haunt the host, he concluded the segment by playfully running his fingers through Mr Trump's hair.

Fallon acknowledges now that the Trump interview was a setback, if not quite a mistake, and he has absorbed at least a portion of the anger that was directed at him by critics and online detractors.

"They have a right to be mad," a chastened Fallon said in an interview this month. "If I let anyone down, it hurt my feelings that they didn't like it. I got it."

But if these events prompted him to search his soul, he said they did not compel him to make widespread changes at The Tonight Show. The programme is still profitable and strongly supported by advertisers.

"I don't want to be bullied into not being me and not doing what I think is funny," he said.

"Just because some people bash me on Twitter, it's not going to change the humour or my show." He added: "It's not The Jimmy Fallon Show. It's The Tonight Show."

One evening, Fallon was in his sixth-floor corner office at NBC's Rockefeller Center headquarters. The room was lit by the neon of the Radio City Music Hall sign while he played a party game on his PlayStation 4 with several of his writers.

In an editing suite, finishing touches were being made to a segment in which Fallon, actor Kevin Bacon and country singer Chris Stapleton impersonated Texas rock band ZZ Top. Before the taping, a guitar that was supposed to spin around Stapleton's waist had broken and Fallon was hoping there was footage from their dress rehearsal to cover this up.

This is the kind of crisis Fallon likes to deal with. He gets a similar thrill from the daily creative meetings in his office, where writers share their progress on projects such as a video in which the Smash Mouth song All Star is re-created with dialogue from Star Wars movies.

The segments he loves best, Fallon said, are dispensable morsels of "brain candy - when people go, 'That's cool that they put this much thought into such a dumb, silly bit'".

He explained that there is something about the fleeting nature of late-night comedy - a segment is just a few minutes long and, if does not make you laugh, another one is right around the corner - that suited him even better than SNL. When he was on SNL, he said, he had too much downtime to fixate on his mistakes and second-guess himself.

"I would kick myself on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, until I did the next show," he said. "That's too long to think about how you messed up and could have been funnier."

If he starts to feel insecure about a given episode of The Tonight Show, he said, "I've got another show tomorrow. I can't even worry about tonight's anymore. I've already spent too much time."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 22, 2017, with the headline 'Late-night darling falls on tough times'. Print Edition | Subscribe