The last thing a group of journalists saw of Ted Cruz recording his slot on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon was the Republican presidential hopeful smiling and raising his hand to wave, over and over again, as Fallon recited the same show trailer for what he said was 45 NBC affiliates.
Each humdrum friendly gesture, each painfully forced smile, looked more like a complicated yoga pose for Cruz to achieve. He had likely been told to relax and look relaxed, to shoot the breeze. But oh, how hard and, yes, a little creepy it looked.
He had told us he was the one to beat Hillary Clinton, he had confessed he felt like he had a “screw loose” after the rigors of the campaign, and he had been mocked for even bothering to come to New York. But even after being complicit in his own light humiliation, the Texas senator kept smiling and waving.
You’d think, after how long and doggedly Cruz has campaigned thus far—down to the final three in the Republican presidential nomination process—that he might be accorded first-guest status on The Tonight Show.
Donald Trump would undoubtedly get that.
But Thursday night, Cruz received an unequivocal message: In the minds of NBC executives, at least, he ranks below British actor Hugh Laurie, who was installed in pole position.
Was it a compromise that, as part of the opening skits, Cruz popped up, as part of a sketch where we eavesdropped on an imagined phone conversation between him and Donald Trump, as played by Fallon?
Even when Cruz gets his own chat-show slot, he still gets Trump as a foil.
“Oh, hello, Donald, what a pleasant surprise,” said Cruz, whose expression said it was not; this call was interrupting his 843rd viewing of The Princess Bride.
Cruz was dressed in a light-gray suit and open-neck shirt: relax, relax, relax.
You sense that having to sit and smile and backchat on late-night talk shows is torture for him. Give him a pulpit to fulminate from, some LGBTs or women seeking abortions to judge, and he’s fine—anything but this. His rictus smile could curdle milk.
But still Fallon, brilliant as Trump, persisted.
“I appreciate you being the bigger man,” Cruz told Trump.
“Oh, I’m the bigger man, with bigger hands and the bigger…” said Fallon, mimicking Trump’s dick-centered boasting.
The crowd roared.
“You can’t see me, but I’m pointing at my Trump Tower,” said Fallon-Trump.
Here, Cruz both looked disgusted and missed his cue.
“I’m really glad I’m not on FaceTime right now,” he said.
Trump wondered how Cruz had won Colorado; Cruz explained that he had won it “fair and square.”
Cruz was then asked to explain his stance on immigration.
First, President Obama’s amnesty would be vaporized. Then, “We shall secure the border once and for all, and start enforcing the rule of law.”
Fallon-Trump looked forward to next week’s New York primary, with Cruz having “already won in your home state of Canada.”
Would Cruz, Trump asked, explain his impugning of “New York values”?
“Look, Donald,” said Cruz, “I’m not going to pander to New Yorkers. I love New York City.” The crowd whooped. “It’s the greatest city in the world, with the best-looking audiences in the entire world. So when I said ‘New York values,’ I was merely trying to say ‘I value New York,’ except saying it backwards, like Yoda.”
“I love Yoda. I watch her every morning with Kathie Lee,” was Fallon-Trump’s brilliant response.
Again Cruz fluffed his scripted comeback line, which was also admittedly lame: “They like ‘wining’ almost as much as you do, Donald.”
Trump continued to offer New York advice to Cruz, like walk fast, because “no one likes a slow walker.”
“Hold on, let me get my pen,” Cruz said laconically, reaching instead—and to audience whoops, and props for good timing and mugging here—for a bottle of whiskey.
You get a pen, Fallon-Trump asked?
“Got it,” Cruz said, perfectly stony.
Why be a GOP nominee? Fallon-Trump wondered.
Cruz said he had run a very positive campaign, even though it had taken a while to unify the Republican Party.
“So have I!” exclaimed Fallon-Trump. “It just so happens that I unified them against me.”
If Cruz was invited to a lip-sync battle, Trump had the perfect song, as Rihanna and Drake’s “Work” struck up.
“OK, Donald, I’m hanging up now,” said Cruz.
Later in the show, watching the senator wanting to be funny and relaxed made for very tense viewing.
Up popped a prophetic yearbook picture, which listed a group of future wishes Cruz had listed, now each with a “check” next to them: attend Princeton, law school, law practice, politics, and…run for and win presidency of the United States.
The audience did not go wild at the prospect of that last check-to-be.
Either Cruz has low self-esteem or he figures a little humility plays well with those who find him to be a stridently bigoted cyborg.
He made out his daughters (Caroline, 8, and Catherine, 5) could wrap him around their fingers; that he was the kind, fluffy cop to stern wife/mom Heidi.
Cruz was going for soft, soft, soft. No fire and brimstone judginess tonight.
The effects of the campaign on his family were “hands down the hardest part,” he said, and he wished daughter Caroline a happy birthday.
He had the ambition to be a starting point guard with the Lakers, he said mournfully, “but it wasn’t to be.” He cast his eyes down, just like Princess Di used to do. He deployed sad little nods.
And his “jokes.” Aieee. If there is a tumbleweed shortage Friday morning, blame Ted Cruz.
He had heard, he said, that in Trump’s yearbook his hope was to make every late-night comic really rich.
A fleeting hiccup of laughter from the audience, before Fallon put Cruz in his place: “Well, you’re both doing a good job at that,” he said, then apologized for taking an easy pot shot.
“You’re fantastic at debates,” Fallon said in the way you sometimes desperately search for something nice to say, often opting to flatter a deadly dull tie.
“And I’ll tell you, at college that really attracted the women,” said Cruz, as America felt a little bit of sick rise in its collective mouth. “Wanting to argue about NATO policy was a great pickup line.”
When did you become a master-debater, said Fallon, goading the Christian right’s great hope into sex smuttery.
Cruz just nodded, like a toothless though imposing killer whale being poked by a stick.
High school, a lot in college? persisted Fallon.
“You know, Jimmy, I’m not going to touch that,” said Cruz, flailing.
Fallon asked Cruz how grueling the campaign had been.
“It’s exhausting,” he said, as if a humanizing prelude to a great big bitching session of the shitty hotels and shitty diners he’s had to try to appear folksy in.
But no, of course Cruz rallied to say he was “having more fun than I’ve ever had in my life. I probably have a screw loose.” Charlie the Butcher’s shop in Williamsville hadn’t given him an ambrosial beef sandwich—a nice safe, butch, hetero foodstuff from a place far outside Sodom.
As Fallon noted, the New York primary on Tuesday “is not looking so good for you.”
“Actually, the early polling was challenging,” said Cruz. “I feel confident tonight that I will win New York with 100 percent of the vote.”
That was funny, but Fallon persisted: What could Cruz do to secure the nomination?
New York is Trump’s home state, Cruz said, and he was working hard to win delegates. “Regardless of what happens here, in all likelihood we’re headed to a contested convention in Cleveland.”
Cruz predicted he would mop up John Kasich’s votes, going on to win a majority, vanquish Trump, and then on to be the candidate to beat Hillary Clinton (his prediction).
Would he support Trump, or whoever the nominee is if not him? Fallon asked.
“Well, I am working very, very hard not to have to answer that question,” said Cruz, which is a neat alternative to “no.”
If Trump wins, Clinton would beat him by double digits, Cruz said, the prospect of which aroused a wonderfully dissonant whoop from a member of the audience.
Cruz launched into a more familiarly thunderous spiel about the Obama-caused apocalypse facing the U.S. and his desire to bring manufacturing “back from Mexico.” He said to had to win in November—probably to save us from ourselves.
“Thank you for being a good sport,” Fallon said to Cruz, in folksy commiseration.
You could tell Cruz couldn’t wait to get back to scowling and judging from his pulpit ASAP—after he had finished wanly smiling and waving to all those affiliates.