Jimmy Fallon is not a journalist.
None of the hosts in late-night TV are, but in a major political shift started by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and David Letterman (to an extent)—and picked up today by John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Seth Meyers, and Colbert when he’s on—we sometimes expect them to be. They’ve highlighted the big political stories of the day and brought to light rarely covered topics, and some of them have even held their own against seasoned politicians.
Fallon, on the other hand, leans on fun variety games. It plays well with the YouTube audience, and as long as they don’t mind playing along, it’s safe for the guests. He’s a likable guy, and many of his interviews go off without a hitch. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course (late-night is what people often fall asleep to, but it gets a second life as viral YouTube fodder), and for two-and-a-half years, it consistently led Fallon to the top of the ratings and digital charts.
But that and the supposed journalistic integrity people expect late-night hosts to have can come to a nasty head when someone politically divisive stops by The Tonight Show.
That person was Donald Trump, and while it wasn’t his first appearance (he’s stopped by twice since announcing his candidacy but the first time since he won the nomination), it’s easily one that is getting the most pushback to date. It’s not the only thing that happened, but it can be summed up with a clip of Fallon messing up Trump’s hair.
The clip was released before The Tonight Show aired Thursday night, but the Fallon backlash, though not entirely unprecedented, reached its breaking point. For some, it was Matt Lauer all over again, while others criticized the expectation that Fallon was supposed to challenge him like a journalist when he hasn’t done so with Trump and others in the past.
What we learned today: Cosmo is edgier than Jimmy Fallon.— Dan Wilbur (@DanWilbur) September 16, 2016
Awww Jimmy Fallon ruffled Trump's hair and then goofed around with him for ten minutes. What a funny, adorable response to fascism!— Birdy (@palebirdy) September 16, 2016
Jimmy Fallon's brand is "Everything is Awesome!" which is great until "everything" turns out to include the rise of xenophobic fascism— Arthur Chu (@arthur_affect) September 16, 2016
As a bipartisan neutral in almost all things, I salute Jimmy Fallon for what he did tonight even if I don't like trump very much :/— Boogie2988 (@Boogie2988) September 16, 2016
Silly to be angry with Jimmy Fallon. He's a comic. The larger issue is the political power candidates/people give late night hosts.— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) September 16, 2016
The segment helped humanize Trump and perhaps tried to take away the power of his hair as a joke, and the rest of the softball interview followed suit. Trump walked back some of the things he’s said about Vladimir Putin, praised Lauer’s interviewing skills at the presidential forum, and refused to say “Sorry” even when talking about the children’s board game. (Meanwhile, both Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump abruptly ended interviews in recent days after being asked questions they deemed tough by journalists about Trump’s policies.)
Fallon did bring up the notion of Trump’s shocking comments—and there are quite a bit of them—which Trump noted he was trying to dial back.
“But I’m trying not to anymore,” he said.
But let’s go back to the hair-ruffling, which may end up being an iconic shot of the 2016 election. At the end of the clip, Trump—who might’ve been in a bit of discomfort—had a smirk on his face as though he just got away with something.
And you know what? He probably did.