When Jay Leno left The Tonight Show (again) in February, conservative media was not exactly pleased.
The thought process—masked in an argument for NBC not to remove its top-rated host in total audience and the key demo—was that late night had lost the only destination where Republicans could humanize themselves, show off their sense of humor and help shatter the portrayal of being stuffy, insensitive white guys who only exist to help the rich get richer. The common perspective was Leno was the anti-Letterman/Stewart/Colbert and the only host to make jokes at President Obama’s expense on a nightly basis. And given how openly supportive all of the aforementioned hosts are of a progressive platform (Kimmel seems apolitical at best), that viewpoint held some merit.
When Jimmy Fallon took over six weeks ago, the fear was he would join the chorus and pick a side—one that skews younger and more liberal—thereby closing the only avenue conservative politicians trust to appear on in the late night realm. But Fallon and those advising him are far too savvy and smart for that line of thinking. The new Tonight Show host—who has gotten off to as good a start as anyone could have imagined—has embraced the Johnny Carson mantra of being an equal opportunity offender in an effort to not potentially alienate half his audience.
As you may have noticed, the country is more polarized than ever. Say what you will about Mitt Romney’s infamous 47 percent comment; it couldn’t have been more accurate. No Presidential candidate will ever get more than 53 percent of the vote again. Battle lines have been drawn (partially thanks to cable news becoming more opinion than actual news) and the number of true independent voters is shrinking.
The proof of Fallon’s strategy lies is in the guests he’s booked on the program lately: Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney. And each wasn’t there for the usual interview, but to actually perform in the variety/sketch aspect of the show that separates the host from his competitors.
Palin’s appearance last week was particularly surprising: Here we had Fallon in the role of an invasion-happy Vladimir Putin and Palin as a tough-talking “grizzly mama.” When all was said and done, America’s most polarizing female figure came across as likable, funny and talented (even playing the flute in a duet with “Putin” on the Ukulele). As for the script for the sketch, it miraculously walked the line of being hilarious without being offensive to anyone:
Putin/Fallon in a bad Russian accent: "I heard back in 2008, you predicted I would invade Ukraine. Is that true?"
"You betcha, Vlad," replies Palin.
She then warns Russia to leave Ukraine alone, to which “Putin” replies, "Whoa, hey Capt. Buzzkill!"
And later in the skit: "You shoot bear? I prefer hand-to-hand combat," says "Putin."
"Well, that's why everyone calls you such a strong leader," replies Palin.
"I come from strong genes. President Obama, he comes from mom jeans!" he answers, borrowing the last line from Palin’s most recent personal pot-shot at the President.
I asked some left-leaning friends of mine what they thought of the skit upon sending them a YouTube link (already viewed over 1.3 million times): All responded similarly along the lines of, “I’m NO fan of Palin, but that was pretty funny.” One even said, “I forgot I hated her for a few minutes.”
The appearance was in stark contrast to Letterman’s take on the former Alaska governor, who once referred to Palin as having the style of a “slutty flight attendant” while joking her (then) 14-year-old daughter (Willow) had been “knocked up by Alex Rodriguez.”
In the end—and especially after the Fallon clips go viral, and they all do—each of the sketches from Palin to Romney to Obama (both men “slow-jamming” the news with the host as a white Barry White) all made everyone—the guests, the host—look good. Best part: Snark and political cheap shots weren’t needed to make all three entertaining and engaging.
Moving forward, other politicians and their communication advisors—particularly on the Republican side—will see Fallon as unbiased, and therefore will absolutely come running when the 2016 presidential primaries are in full swing. From Hillary to Rand to Jeb to Joe, all will tap the personal likability benefits Fallon and his writers uniquely provide.
In conservative media, Jay Leno was practically seen as an honorary member of the GOP. But what Jimmy Fallon has accomplished in terms of political perception is nothing short of amazing: Being embraced by members of both parties as a non-political, non-partisan host who can make even the most polarizing politician appealing—funny, in some cases—even to his or her biggest detractors.