Jimmy Fallon had Donald Trump on “The Tonight Show” Thursday night, and all some people could talk about afterward was a head rub. Toward the end of the interview, Fallon asked the Republican presidential nominee if he could mess up his famous head of hair on live TV, leading to raucous applause and the sort of bite-sized video that both the creators and consumers of internet media eat up.
Before the rub, Fallon did sneak in a few subtle quips, like asking Trump if he knew what a coin was, or suggesting that he still has time to drop out if he decides he no longer wants to become president. But by and large, Fallon’s interview was an extended on-air puff piece, filled with the same sort of polite give-and-take a late-night host reserves for an actor on an obligatory promotional tour.
Throughout the interview, Fallon was predictably non-confrontational and willing to work with whatever Trump gave him. When Trump made a joke about fearing what people might do to his hamburgers if they know it’s him before he orders, Fallon leaned back in his chair and let out a disproportionately large laugh relative to the funniness of the joke. Was it really that funny? No, it was not.
Perhaps we shouldn’t expect more from Fallon. As some noted after the interview, he is a comedian, not a journalist. His job first and foremost is to entertain his audience, not to expose the truth. And Fallon, in particular, has never shown an interest in making enemies. He mostly loves to laugh.
But at their best, late-night hosts have been able to toe a difficult line between comedy and responsibility. No one did this better than David Letterman, who repeatedly exposed truth while on the air, as when he noted during an interview with Trump that some of his clothes were made in China, the country Trump has made his reputation on criticizing. It was entertaining, but it was also important, and Letterman knew how to be both simultaneously.
Fallon is not Letterman, and he never will be, nor does he seem to want to be. But that doesn’t mean he should be let off the hook for humanizing a well-documented xenophobic, racist and misogynistic serial liar, which is exactly what he did on Thursday. Seth Meyers, by comparison, has instituted a Trump ban on his “Late Night” show to avoid just such a promotional appearance.
Trump is an unprecedented candidate who has befuddled professional journalists, let alone fellow entertainers. He is smooth on television and in interviews, able to wiggle out of any question that doesn’t appeal to him. So on the one hand, maybe Fallon just knew he wasn’t going to be able to catch him in a pinch. But on the other, that was a softball interview even by softball standards, and Fallon deserves some flack today.