Around six months ago, Jimmy Fallon was the dominant force in late night comedy, trouncing his nearest competitor (Jimmy Kimmel) by 73 percent in the "key" 18-49 year old ratings demographic. While Stephen Colbert was retooling his show to try to get back on track after a rough start, Fallon was mussing up Donald Trump's hair and normalizing a sociopath before the largest late night audience on television.
But things have changed drastically since then: Colbert has beaten Fallon in ratings continually since Trump took office in January, with his margin of victory growing every week. He is now the most popular man on late night TV, the leader among the new politically-acute crowd of hosts like of Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah, who have found their voices and generated more and more coverage for their trenchant pieces. Comedy isn't going to defeat Trump, but it is a lens a lot of people really do need to try to process the unceasing insanity of the hyper-fast news cycle under Trump.
Meanwhile, Fallon has been almost non-existent since Trump's ascendence, continuing to push his bland celebrity game night and trying to remain a mostly moderate figure for his audience. With his ratings dropping remarkably over the period, it's clear that it's not working. Which is how we end up with segments like the one Fallon did last night, in which he revived his terrible, toothless Trump impression to "parody" yesterday's bonkers press conference.
(Note: this wasn't the first time since Trump was elected that Fallon has pulled out his impression for a bit—this one is even more painful to watch.)
I didn't even want to include it in my earlier roundup of late night hosts' reactions to the press conference, because of how poorly it fared compared to the rest of the coverage. Fallon's impression is the broad Mad TV funhouse mirror version to Alec Baldwin's SNL one—Baldwin makes sure to constantly emphasize Trump's anger and stupidity (this can be bludgeoning at times, but still effective in riling up Trump), while Fallon goes to painstaking lengths to be as innocuous as possible. Fallon's impression is cartoonish in a brainless way—the worst you can say is that it makes Trump look like a silly-but-fun clown. Fallon even gets the most important details wrong: the nasally, rushed voice he uses is more like The Brain (from Pinky and The Brain) than Trump.
Man, Colbert's and Fallon's Trump material last night says it all. Colbert is in his element; Fallon seems like he can't wait to get it over
— James Poniewozik (@poniewozik) February 17, 2017
The most painful thing about the bit is that Fallon appears so uncomfortable doing it—most of the sketch is completely vague on any of the details that make Trump and his lunatic rants so memorable (and horrifying). It's the lamest form of parody, the silliest form of satire: take the cliche of Trump's mannerisms, repetitively chant catchphrases, avoid any substantive critique of what he's saying/doing. Do not even attempt to grapple with the horrifying racism and narcissism underlying his personality. Offend no one, please as many as you can, cut to The Roots performing with Sturgill Simpson, rinse, repeat.
When Trump was merely a mildly entertaining-but-still-bigoted aspiring member of the celebrity elite—when he was still better known to most Americans as The Apprentice guy rather than the Birther guy—it's understandable that NBC and Fallon had a cozy relationship with him. Once he ran for president, and started parroting the views of his worst followers and enablers, that changed. Fallon has already been roundly and justly criticized for that hair-tousling interview—the question now is what he does in a changing television landscape that is hungry for political comedy that is engaged with our tumultuous world, not just sitting on the sidelines and playing games with celebrities.