For many late-night critics, Jimmy Fallon’s defining moment as Tonight Show host came last September during his banter-filled interview with then-Republican-nominee Donald Trump. After lobbing a few softball questions, Fallon, grinning wildly, reached over his desk and ruffled the divisive politician’s hair.
In the subsequent months, the former SNL star has endured fan backlash and ratings slide. In a lengthy New York Times interview, the comedian admitted he was “devastated” by the negative feedback – but unfazed by the viewership numbers. Other comic talents, including Jay Leno and Seth Meyers, also weighed in on the ever-shifting late-night scene.
Here are five things that grabbed our attention.
1. Fallon understands why some fans got pissed about the Trump hair moment, but he isn’t planning to change his centrist, people-pleasing style.
“They have a right to be mad,” he said of the interview. “If I let anyone down, it hurt my feelings that they didn’t like it. I got it.”
His aim, he added, wasn’t to make Trump appear cuddly – but to simply “have fun” with a guest. “I didn’t do it to humanize him,” he said. “I almost did it to minimize him. I didn’t think that would be a compliment: ‘He did the thing that we all wanted to do.'”
After the brouhaha, Fallon took an Internet break to avoid the nasty feedback. But even if the criticism “devastated” him, he remains confident in his show’s style: “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 my humor or my show.”
2. Fallon doesn’t pay attention to ratings, even though he’s slumping in that department.
By the end of 2016, The Tonight Show, thanks in part to carefully planned viral bits, was dominating the ratings game, drawing in 3.5 million viewers a night. But the show started to lose its grip in recent months, as Stephen Colbert’s Late Show surged ahead with biting, anti-Trump monologues. Still, Fallon says he’s oblivious to the numbers and plans to stay that way.
“We’re winning in something,” he said. “People in the height requirement between 5-7 and 5-11, we’re No. 1, from 11:50 to 11:55 … I never, ever care. I’ll know [about the ratings] when someone fires me.”
3. Fallon denies that NBC was concerned with his drinking.
Last October, The New York Post‘s Page Six published a piece citing an “NBC insider” who claimed the network feared Fallon’s drinking had spiraled “out of control.” But Fallon emphatically denied that claim, telling the Times, “I could never do a day-to-day job if I was drinking every night. That’s just kicking you when you’re down.”
4. Jay Leno thinks that Fallon, with his escapist silliness, is Johnny Carson’s true stylistic successor.
Analyzing Fallon’s place among the current late-night giants, Jay Leno compared the Lip Sync Battle mastermind to the iconic Carson.
“Johnny was an instant success, but a lot of the critics thought, this is not culturally relevant,” said Leno, Fallon’s Tonight Show predecessor. “Jack Paar would spend 90 minutes with Noël Coward, and Johnny did Art Fern. The stories would say, ‘When is The Tonight Show going stop the silliness and get back to substantive issues?'”
Leno added that Fallon’s broad comedic canvas – including impressions and musical numbers – make him “probably closer to what Johnny was like than anybody in a long time … Johnny had a youthful look about him and could play musical instruments and do magic tricks. It was all about mass appeal.”
5. Fellow NBC host Seth Meyers admits that Fallon’s more inoffensive style will probably win out in the long-run.
Meyers, who succeeded Fallon as NBC’s Late Night host in 2014, believes Fallon’s good-natured, largely apolitical style will probably age better than other shows obsessed with day-to-day headlines.
“I do think there’s some nobility in trying to do a show for more people, as opposed to doing a show for less,” the fellow SNL alum said. “After the hot takes are dead and gone, and the carcasses are strewn about, having fun is pretty undefeated as a way to spend your time.”