Let’s travel back to the pastoral days of September 2016. Most of us believed that Donald Trump wouldn’t be elected president, but we were still incensed by the racist, misogynistic language of his campaign. “Don’t normalise him” became a rallying cry for Trump’s opposition — and when he appeared as the Republican presidential nominee on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Fallon broke that cardinal rule. “Aw shucks, what an eccentric character,” Fallon seemed to be saying to the man who promised to ban Muslims from entering the United States. The public outrage was immediate. Fallon was swiftly castigated by social media, the press, and fellow comedians. And now he’s speaking out about that unforgettable hair ruffle.
“I did not do it to 'normalise' [Trump] or to say I believe in his political beliefs or any of that stuff,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview. After the Trump segment aired, The Tonight Show’s ratings plummeted and never recovered, notes THR. Fallon begins crying when describing the backlash against his show. “It was definitely a down time,” he says. “...You go, ‘Alright, we get it. I heard you. You made me feel bad. So now what? Are you happy? I'm depressed...What do you want me to do?...What would make you happy?” After a pause, he apologises, and insists that “looking back, I would do it differently.”
In the softball interview with Trump, Fallon cheerfully tousled his hair (Trump is notoriously sensitive to criticism about his hair); this was seen a missed opportunity to seriously question someone campaigning for the most powerful job in the world. But Fallon has never been a hard hitter with his jokes: even as a co-host on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update in the early 2000s, his quips were more playful than biting. He isn’t known for his tough questions; he prefers to play games like “Wheel of Impressions” with his guests. Fallon’s jovial nature lends itself well when he celebrates his guests — like his viral interview with Cardi B — and that affability was, perhaps, not the best fit for someone like Trump.
In this case, Fallon really didn’t read the room. But he’s listening now. These days, Fallon is trying to live his politics more publicly: he recently spoke at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School's graduation, where he lauded the student gun control activists. He also donated $1 million to Hurricane Harvey relief, and used The Tonight Show to decry Trump’s repulsive comments during the Charlottesville violence. And he also brought Cardi B back to guest host the show— which may be his form of an apology to us all. It’s better than crocodile tears.