If you were the host of America’s most-viewed late-night show and you had a guest that was a presidential candidate known for hateful rhetoric against minorities and immigrants, what would you do with him? Did you say ruffle his hair? Because that’s what Jimmy Fallon and NBC thought was the right answer.
“The next time I see you, you could be the president of the United States,” Fallon said to Donald Trump during his broadcast last Thursday, the Republican candidate for president. “I just wanted to know if there was something we could do that’s not presidential really, something that we could do now that we’re both just civilians.”
Fallon took his last chance to have Trump on his show as a presidential candidate and used it to mess up his hair. If you’re into that, fine — the video currently has 7.4 million views on YouTube. But it raises the question — why would Fallon effectively repackage Trump’s notorious and “politically incorrect” campaign for a late-night audience?
To clarify, this isn’t about how late-night shows treat presidential candidates, this is about how late-night shows treat Trump, who is unlike any other presidential candidate of the past 50 years. It’s about how shows like Fallon’s and networks like NBC have put ratings at a higher priority than the people who have and would be affected by Trump’s rhetoric and policies. Let’s not forget that Trump now has a more-than-cordial relationship with white supremacists.
Fallon’s show is in stark contrast to how legendary late-night host David Letterman easily dealt with Trump so many years ago. Over the course of several interviews, Letterman called out Trump for his attacks against China by revealing that Trump’s ties are actually made in China, asked him to shut down his factories in China and outside the United States and called him a racist for his defamatory statements about President Barack Obama’s birth. Letterman later apologized to Trump for the last bit, saying that “maybe he’s just a guy that periodically says stupid things to get people’s attention.”
The more political late-night shows such as “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” have frequently acted as watchdogs for both Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Bee also called out NBC’s, let’s say, complicated relationship with Trump. Trump went from hosting his show “The Celebrity Apprentice” on NBC, to NBC dropping him from the reality show after his remarks about Mexicans, to then hosting “Saturday Night Live” and guest-starring on “The Tonight Show” several times.
“Aw, Trump can be a total sweetheart with someone who has no reason to be terrified of him,” Bee said of Fallon’s interview.
She went on to chide network executives at NBC for putting ratings above minorities affected by Trump’s rhetoric.
“They’re not racists — they just don’t mind if other people are, which is just as bad,” Bee said.
The first two shows to reveal that the guy stirring racial tensions in the country also had a funny side were “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Saturday Night Live.” These are two programs in the top-tier of late-night comedy — this is where examples are set.
On his show on Sept. 22, 2015, Colbert opened the interview by apologizing to Trump for making fun of him as his conservative character on “The Colbert Report.” Colbert gave
Trump room to apologize in turn — to anyone for anything — which he declined and even gave him a chance to admit that Obama was born in the United States.
This was a few weeks into Colbert’s tenure at “The Late Show,” when he was trying to separate himself from his over-the-top “Colbert Report” character and appeal to a wider demographic — and also when Trump’s candidacy was more of a joke then it is now. Colbert can be somewhat forgiven for holding back in his early interviews, as lately he has found new ways to approach politics on the show, especially this week in a barely restrained desk piece on Trump’s recent “birther” announcement, in which he admitted the fact that Obama was born in the United States.
“Here’s the deal — you don’t get to flog this issue for five years and then act like you’re correcting everybody else,” said a red-faced Colbert. “We’re not crazy. We were there.”
“Saturday Night Live’s” Trump-hosted show, which aired Nov. 7, 2015, was perhaps the worst offense, showing America that the guy who said Mexico is sending us criminals and rapists could also take a joke. The episode itself had an overall feeling of what The New York Times called “deadness,” but the show used Trump to get its biggest ratings since 2012.
These two examples showed that it’s okay to take it easy on Trump and use him for ratings. It showed the less political late-night shows, like “The Tonight Show” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live” — who has twice done a bit with Trump where he reads a Seuss-like children’s book called “Winners Aren’t Losers” — that this is okay.
Otherwise standard late-night shows like “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” also on NBC, and “The Late Late Show with James Corden” have taken stances against Trump. Myers banned Trump from his show after Trump banned the Washington Post from his rallies back in June, adding that “Late Night” was a show that Trump “never expressed any interest in appearing on, whatsoever.”
Meyers also offered Trump a show deal on NBC titled “Chicago President,” where Trump would get to play the president without any real consequences. In August, Corden performed a duet with Denis Leary dressed as Hillary and Bill Clinton titled “(Trump’s an) ***hole.”
If Fallon took a few more risks, maybe he would’ve messed up Trump’s hair and then inquired whether Trump had ever done business with Ivari International, a hair extension company which at one point had offices in Trump Tower. That fact was discovered in a lengthy investigation into Trump’s hair by Gawker, a website that was recently shut down by a different thin-skinned billionaire.
To Fallon’s credit, he also had Clinton on this week and allowed her the same freedom as Trump, letting her talk about her bout with pneumonia and her fight against bigotry, and he even let her hand him a bag of softballs that represented his Trump interview. “Have you seen my show? I’m never too hard on anyone,” Fallon told TMZ.
It’s true that we shouldn’t expect Fallon, or any late-night host, to challenge a high-profile guest the way we expect it from a television journalist. And Fallon isn’t Letterman or Colbert or even Jon Stewart. Having a more tense interview with a candidate who probably still wants to ban an entire religion from the country would have been more interesting — and maybe received just as many views. But Fallon played it safe.
Maybe Fallon was just doing his job at NBC or maybe he’ll write a book in 10 years including an anecdote about how he disliked the interview. Maybe. But right now is what matters.