We’re currently in a conservative, predictable, please-don’t-take-offense era of awards show hosting. Beginning with last year’s Tonys, every one of the Big Five shows will have been anchored by one of its network’s own late-night hosts: James Corden was MC for the Tonys and will be for the upcoming Grammys on CBS; Jimmy Kimmel got the Emmys and the upcoming Oscars on ABC. And Sunday night’s Golden Globes, of course, had NBC’s Jimmy Fallon.
But it’s not just the choice of host that’s been relatively tame, it’s the style — especially when held up against a prior class that included Andy Samberg (silly), Ricky Gervais (openly contemptuous), and Chris Rock (unabashedly critical). CBS and NBC didn’t just favor native sons; they picked James Corden and Jimmy Fallon — as in, not Stephen Colbert or Seth Meyers. The former are entertainers with a proven capacity to please many and alienate few. On the page — and until, say, November 8, 2016 — that description paired perfectly with the demands of being an awards show host: performing mood maintenance, producing shareable YouTube content, and passing the mic.
But sometimes the host tries so hard not to make waves he disappears entirely, and that’s exactly what happened to Fallon. The first awards show after the election begged for a statement, even of the watered-down Tonight Show variety. Donald Trump just won in part because he was able to convince the country he was the enemy of the cultural elite. So what would a room full of elites say to him when they were parked in front of a camera? It was up to Fallon to get that particular ball rolling.
Monologues are not Fallon’s strong suit. He’s visibly uncomfortable with anything resembling political humor, and usually rushes through a few half-hearted current-events zingers in order to get to what he and his audience love: the guest spots fueled by preexisting star power. At the Globes, the order was reversed. Fallon expended nearly all his juice on an opening number packed with celebrity cameos and mediocre singing. He capped it off with a sort of mission statement: Show business is great! That’s barely paraphrasing; as he put it in his own words at the end of the monologue, “I and everyone watching at home appreciate what you do … let’s make tonight a celebration!”
Putting the song and dance before the monologue just made the jokes’ shortcomings all the more glaring. As the musical number showed, the host was clearly as swept away by La La Land’s industry back-patting as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Instead, he made weak, obvious swipes at the president-elect, enough to summon the monster to the forefront of the audience’s minds but not enough to vanquish him.
Donald Trump stayed there for the rest of the night, and Jimmy Fallon disappeared. With the exception of a cringeworthy Cypress Hill homage and an admittedly decent HFPA joke (the president had to make his speech early because Fallon’s kid wouldn’t sleep until she saw the head of the Hollywood Foreign Press), Fallon essentially peaced out for the remainder of the evening. Hugh Laurie was the first to acknowledge the orange-tinted elephant in the room, and to address it head-on. Lest we forget, Laurie is a comedian first and an originator of the Growling School of British American Male Accents second, a fact he made clear in his best supporting actor in a limited series acceptance speech on behalf of “psychopathic billionaires everywhere.” He pointed out that it might be the final Globes ever, since the HFPA “has the words ‘Hollywood,’ ‘foreign,’ and ‘press’ in the title,” and “to some Republicans even the word ‘association’ is slightly sketchy.” The joke was deft, witty, and delivered with an appropriate mix of wry exasperation and genuine disgust — everything, in other words, that Fallon’s lame “Trump = Joffrey!” crack was not.
The night’s marquee moment, however, belonged to Meryl Streep, who used her lifetime achievement award speech to rally her peers by stroking their egos — or was she stroking their egos by asking them to rally? Like the outgoing first lady, Streep declined to specify her primary target by name. Going high only made her remarks more cutting: “This instinct to humiliate when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”
It’s true that the speech was, in many ways, as self-aggrandizing as this La La Land–enamored Globes was, and Hollywood at large has always been: the eyebrow-raising description of filmmaking as a haven of diversity; the elitist jabs at football and, of all things, MMA; the idea that Hollywood has ever had the answers to the country’s ills. But it was the kind of self-regard indistinguishable from idealism — the idea that art can make a difference. And it was coupled with a specific call to action, as Streep urged the rich and famous to hand some of their riches over to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Such is Streep’s power, renown, and grace that her address would have dominated next-day coverage no matter who hosted. (Remember: Viola Davis started her tribute by revealing that Streep used to ritually shame her for her cooking habits and Streep still came out looking flawless.) And when neutrality is increasingly the ideal some networks seem to be striving for, it’s perhaps inevitable that a host doesn’t grab headlines. But Fallon wasn’t even able to transform the Globes into the buddy-buddy oasis his regular gig has slowly become. The result was stuck in the middle: toothless and joyless.
As it turned out, there was a man who impacted Sunday night’s ceremony more than any other. His name just wasn’t Jimmy Fallon.