For the first time since he took a late-night hosting job in 2009, Jimmy Fallon seems on rocky ground. His Tonight Show, which has led in the ratings almost every week since he took it over, is suddenly falling behind Stephen Colbert’s Late Show. Fallon’s brand of celebrity and pop culture-focused comedy, which leans on jubilantly silly games and sketches, suddenly seems out of step with a moment dominated by political news. Worst of all, his YouTube views—a bedrock of his popularity with younger audiences who don’t tune in to broadcast TV—are lagging behind rivals like Colbert and Trevor Noah (though he still has a significant subscriber edge).
So it’s no surprise that Fallon, who has strived for impartiality in a late-night world dominated by partisan figures like Seth Meyers, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee, is now trying to be tougher on Donald Trump. It’s perhaps equally unsurprising that he isn’t very good at it. Thursday night, after the president’s much discussed 77-minute press conference, practically every late-night host leapt on the opportunity to satirize it, but only Fallon went for a full impression, donning his Trump wig and bronzer for a three-minute cold open.
It hit a lot of the major touchstones for any Trump impression. “First of all, you’re all fake news,” Fallon groused as he took the podium, later reserving some praise for Fox News (or, as he dubbed it, “Faux News”). He took a sip of water with a tiny puppet arm. He joked that he had made “so much progress ... I’ve managed to make the last four weeks feel like four years.” He shook a Magic 8 Ball that prompted him to yell catchphrases like “Big League.” Other lines fell especially flat, like a joke about Elon Musk building a giant Roomba to clean up the country, or Beyoncé being named Secretary of Labor because she’s pregnant with twins.
It felt like a solid reminder of why Fallon has largely avoided political humor at The Tonight Show—it’s never been his forte. As an impressionist, going back to his time on Saturday Night Live, he’s always been strong, but he’s better at nailing a celebrity’s cadence than his overall spirit. While Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression has always felt genuinely loaded with nastiness, Fallon just works to get the President’s voice right and then delivers a performance that otherwise feels empty.
The Tonight Show is better when it defers to other performers for more hard-hitting material. The blisteringly funny New York standup comic Jo Firestone, whom the show hired as a writer in December, has done several segments as the new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, skewering the perceived incoherence of her confirmation hearings. “I’m Betsy Dee-Vose,” she starts one appearance, mispronouncing her own name (and ignoring Fallon’s attempts to correct her), “And I’m exited to be your new Secretary of Edu-Cake Boss.” She later proposes a switch to a “pamphlet-based education system.”
But still, the show’s efforts feel half-hearted and almost unnecessary given the amount of political humor already thrown at viewers every night by Fallon’s competitors. On Late Night with Seth Meyers, which airs directly after The Tonight Show, Meyers launched into a 10-minute breakdown of the press conference, which had finished just three hours before his show taped. As the host ruefully noted, his prepared “Closer Look” segment for that night on the efforts to repeal Obamacare had to be junked because of the news impact of Trump’s remarks. Late Night has become so practiced at digging into current events that the segment nonetheless felt as seamless as Fallon’s felt very tossed-off. (Meyers also got more than 1 million YouTube views within 12 hours, to Fallon’s 280,000).
No doubt, The Tonight Show is in a tough position. There’s no sign that viewer fascination with the Trump administration will let up anytime soon, but the late-night field seeking to lampoon it is only growing more crowded. Fallon’s ratings have dipped below Colbert’s, but he does maintain a narrow edge with the 18-49 year old “demo” prized by advertisers, toward whom his pop culture-focused material has always been tightly aimed. Ever since Fallon’s notorious interview of the now-president last September, which culminated in Fallon ruffling Trump’s hair with a delighted cackle, his credibility as a political satirist has been thin at best. Fallon may be best served by sticking to his strengths, and concentrating on the lighter side of the news. Unfortunately for him, in recent weeks there hasn’t been much of that to go around.