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Songversations, Lip Flips, and Low Ratings: Lessons From a Week of Watching Jimmy Fallon

‘The Tonight Show’ has been in decline for months now—perhaps because it’s the same as it always was

Four images of Jimmy Fallons as the ‘Tonight Show’ host Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last week should have been a great one for Jimmy Fallon. His Tonight Show moved up its schedule to do a post–Super Bowl live broadcast from Minneapolis, allowing NBC’s chief spokes-cheerleader to work his particular brand of magic. Fallon has always been a late-night hype man of the traditional school, carrying out his promotional duties with a smile on his face even as those duties grow increasingly less central to his job description. On the heels of the Super Bowl, promotion was the theme of the night: of Fallon’s longtime partner in bits Justin Timberlake, fresh off a superlatively milquetoast halftime show; of prime-time flagship This Is Us, whose core cast stopped by to promote their own postgame broadcast/PSA about the dangers of faulty CrockPots; of Fallon himself, after an unsteady year. Song, dance, and network brand synergy — the Fallon hat trick, coinciding perfectly with one of the biggest live TV events of the year.

But besides its unabashed commercialism, Fallon’s Tonight Show has something else in common with the Super Bowl, which drew its smallest audience in nine years despite ending in the kind of underdog victory that great drama is made of. The live Sunday episode was the fourth-highest rated of Fallon’s nearly four-year tenure to date, but, overall, the host remains locked in the downward slide that began a year and a half ago, after now-President Donald Trump’s fateful campaign appearance. Stephen Colbert’s competing Late Show on CBS, meanwhile, has used its political high ground to pole vault to first place in nightly ratings, total seasonal viewership, and even, on occasion, the once dependably Fallon-faithful 18–49 demographic.

Worse yet for The Tonight Show, the ratings gap has only widened over time. The latest numbers put Colbert’s lead at almost a million viewers, more than double Fallon’s edge over third-place finisher Jimmy Kimmel. Of the three programs, Fallon’s Tonight Show is the only one to post a net loss in its audience over the past year. Colbert’s ascendancy, fueled by a more confident and partisan voice than in his tentative early months, is well documented; Kimmel earned his own on the back of a handful of zeitgeist-seizing speeches and high-profile awards gigs. Fallon, on the other hand, has lost about 10 percent of his peak audience.

Curious how this context would affect the viewing experience, I decided to check in, taking in a week’s worth of full nightly talk-show episodes from Colbert and Fallon for the first time since the presidential election. I found out that watching The Tonight Show in 2018 is an exercise in watching an entertainer stick to what they do best, even as “what they do best” no longer aligns with what the broadest possible audience wants. For Jimmy Fallon, it seems there’s no better option.

An irony of the post-election Fallon era is that a talk show that made its name for modernizing late-night comedy now feels like the genre’s retrograde establishment. Fallon and his writers’ greatest innovation to the format was to zhuzh up the guest segments into participatory “games” — like the absurdist physical-comedy bits from Late Night With David Letterman, but with their underlying sense of subversion surgically removed. Thus sanitized for the 11:30 p.m. ET time slot, YouTube, and, best-case scenario, a spinoff series, bits like Wheel of Impressions and Pictionary became the bulwark of Fallon’s appeal, both to viewers and prospective guests. More visually dynamic than two people sitting in chairs and more easily replicable than chemistry or charisma, the games successfully bridged the TV-internet divide and disrupted the monotony of late night, then just beginning the massive personnel turnover that would soon bring James Corden, Stephen Colbert, and Seth Meyers. Dick Cavetts of the world aside, late night has never been an intellectual forum; if swapping active participation for conversation was what made young people feel like their parents’ entertainment was now their own, then who were network executives to second-guess?

Long before the Trump segment, a Fallon backlash started brewing. Difficult People’s unforgettable burn summed it up best: “Isn’t it funny how Jimmy Fallon slowly turned The Tonight Show into a children’s birthday party?” By dispensing with much of public figures’ obligation to, well, talk to him, Fallon lowered the level of difficulty inherent in being a talk-show guest; celebrities could simply plug themselves into a preexisting machine designed to amplify their likability. Skepticism toward this practice has long been a mainstay for critics, and recent ratings suggest that they’re not alone. Tonight Show fatigue is almost certainly connected to the current political climate, but Fallon’s insubstantiality goes beyond just his apoliticism.

The zeitgeist has moved on. The games, however, remain. In the past week alone, Timberlake, The Tonight Show’s de facto lieutenant, filled out the Super Bowl show with a wince-inducing Songversations; Sienna Miller performed a Lip Flip, butchering a Noo Yawk accent as badly as Fallon did a British one; Andrew Garfield and Rachel Brosnahan threw themselves into a few rounds of Catchphrase. Even when guests didn’t take part in a branded franchise-within-a-franchise, they were happy to get in the Tonight Show spirit. Jesse Tyler Ferguson talked about red-carpet photobombing, reprising an angle he’s worked on shows like Ellen and Conan, before getting Fallon to don a silly wig, the sight gag being the beginning and end of the bit. Tim Tebow gave his feedback on fan tattoos, a segment that came across less as an interview than a show-and-tell, with Fallon doing the heavy lifting. Of the entire guest roster for the week, only Garfield told a textbook late-night story, about puking up blueberry pancakes at Prince’s Golden Globes after-party — yet no one else suffered for its absence. The games still serve their intended purpose, showcasing performers’ unscripted silliness in a highly scripted context. Transparent flattery isn’t as in vogue as it once was, but it’s still what Fallon does best.

Some of the most revealing insight into Fallon’s disadvantage comes from holding The Tonight Show up directly against its closest competition, starting with its most recent event broadcasts. Fallon, as the late-night face of the network that aired the Super Bowl, went live after the game. Colbert, earlier this year, went live for the State of the Union; so did Jimmy Kimmel, for a news-making interview with Stormy Daniels. The juxtaposition may have been network-engineered, but it was also fitting: Fallon is better suited to surfing post–Super Bowl adrenaline than guiding an uncertain public through Trump-administration madness, and Colbert vice versa.

The most consistent point of difference between The Tonight Show and The Late Show are the monologues. Since Colbert’s pivot to politics in 2016, the host can run for 10 minutes at a time, taking up a fifth of the total telecast and often split into two parts for online distribution. For Fallon, the monologue has fallen victim to creative destruction. The actual content of said jokes last week was dutifully left-leaning: “Putin can rig an election but not a curling event,” of an early U.S. Olympic victory over Russia; compared with our president, so-called Lady Doritos would be “quieter and not as orange.” It’s the quantity of them that speaks to Fallon’s discomfort: Where Colbert’s monologues have bulked up, Fallon’s have scaled radically down, often coming in at just three or four “here’s what people are talking about …” jokes.

The disparity in political engagement from the two comedians is as easy to point out as it is true. Watching their shows back to back this week, however, I was struck by another distinction the monologues brought out. By going solo for long stretches at a time, Colbert was putting much more of himself into every episode: his opinions, his idiosyncrasies, his personality. The same could be said for his conventional interviews; a conversation requires two partners, and Colbert is never shy about injecting his own skepticism, thoughts, and genuine amusement. That’s what made his John Oliver interlude, now at 2.7 million YouTube hits and counting, so pleasurable: One gets the impression of a representative chat between clever, well-informed, proudly nerdy equals.

Fallon’s interviews, with their “I’m delighted by your every word, tell me more” tone, are closer to first dates. Over the week, I made a game of tracking the most absurd object of Fallon’s overpraise, eventually landing on Tesla’s Elon Musk. (“I love that guy!”) As complimentary as the games and couch sessions are to the guest, they serve an equally vital purpose for the host, who’s no more compelled to take risks by the Acting Game than his partner is. So all-encompassing is Fallon the hype man that very little of Fallon the person slips through. At best, this comes off as strangely guarded; at worst, one gets the sense there’s not much of Fallon to fill all those minutes that other hosts reserve for speechifying and repartee.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to judge Fallon for being what he is, especially now that his vacuously positive persona is no longer propelling him to uncontested dominance. Gradations on the relatively inflexible late-night template go in and out of fashion; the worst an entertainer can do, seemingly, is to force a transformation into something they’re not. That’s what Colbert learned over his unsteady first few months attempting a 180 from faux-pundit to pure showman. It’s also what Fallon demonstrated with the lowlight of the past week, a 2018 update of “The Times They Are a-Changin’” delivered in road-tested character as Bob Dylan himself. One could see how the fusion of trenchant commentary and old-school Fallon antics would make sense to the Tonight Show staff; in practice, “Come women and men who hashtag #MeToo / And believe me when I say that we believe you” is a thousand times worse than any outright parody could possibly be. The only thing more painful than watching a moment pass is watching those left behind try to catch up with it.