What Jimmy Fallon Can Learn From Stephen Colbert

Taking a hard turn into politics is the last thing ‘The Tonight Show’ should be doing right now.

Theo Wargo/Getty Images for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

Don’t do it, Jimmy!

On Tuesday night, Page Six reported that Jimmy Fallon plans to make The Tonight Show more political in an effort to gain back viewers he’s lost to Stephen Colbert’s Late Show since Donald Trump was elected president four months ago.

But if Fallon and his team have learned anything from watching Colbert’s rocky first year on the job, they would know that this is exactly the wrong approach to their show’s ratings predicament.

According to one of Page Six’s anonymous sources, Fallon is “feeling the pressure” to take on Trump in a bigger way now that Colbert is routinely beating him in the nightly ratings by hammering the president on a nightly basis.

For the first time since 2010, CBS’s Late Show won the February sweep period, averaging 3.02 million viewers compared to 2.87 million for Fallon’s Tonight Show on NBC. Those numbers represent a marked change from last season when Fallon was averaging 3.6 million and Colbert was a distant second with 2.75 million. (Jimmy Kimmel, meanwhile, seems permanently stuck in third place.)

Clearly, Colbert’s doing something right. Beginning in earnest with last summer’s political conventions, the host decided to stop running away from his Colbert Report roots and embraced the impassioned, opinionated political satire he spent nine years perfecting. Only this time, instead of coming at it from the point of view of a right-wing pundit, he was doing it as himself.

Last month, Colbert appeared on former Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer’s podcast About the News, where he offered up some self-criticism of his first year on the Late Show.

“If I have one thing to fault about the launch of our show, it was that I thought, to get away from [my] old character, I should get away from that as our raw material,” Colbert said, referring to the type of political topics he would cover on The Colbert Report. “And I wasn’t talking about the big stories every day.” Of course, Trump has more or less been the biggest story of every day since Colbert took over for Letterman in September 2015.

He realized that was a “mistake” because “audiences have come to expect, as the volume of information increases on legitimate news sources — as it’s turned into a firehouse — they want someone to curate the day for them,” he said, adding, “Americans digest their news through late-night comedy now.”

On the question of whether late-night TV has become more “partisan,” Colbert said, “I think that the shows are reflections of what the country’s like. And as the partisan divide in the country has become deeper, it is natural for the shows to fall on either side of a fence or else, I think – unless you truly are a neutral person, and I’ve never met one.” If a host is impartial, he added, “They’re not paying attention.”

As demonstrated by his three-year tenure as host of The Tonight Show, Fallon might just be that “neutral person.” Or at least, that is the image he has tried to project to the country by delivering jokes about politics that lack the satirical bite we hear on a regular basis from Stephen Colbert. And Seth Meyers. And Trevor Noah. And Samantha Bee. And John Oliver. Hell, even Jimmy Kimmel, when he’s not trying out a stunt like “Trump-Free Tuesday,” has managed to pack more punch.

Of course, Fallon’s political credibility took its biggest hit when he hosted Trump on his show just two months before Election Day. Instead of rising to the occasion and even attempting to hold the Republican candidate to account, Fallon mussed his hair and made him seem just humble enough for voters on the edge to throw their support his way.

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That appearance was not only savaged by Samantha Bee — “I guess ratings matter more than brown people,” she quipped — but was also condemned by Bill Maher, who suggested Trump “used” Fallon. Just this week David Letterman said, “I don’t want to criticize Jimmy Fallon, but I can only tell you what I would have done in that situation: I would have gone to work on Trump.”

“Have you seen my show? I’m never too hard on anyone,” Fallon responded as the backlash gained momentum. That’s true. So why start now?

In recent weeks, Fallon has started to ease his Trump impression back into The Tonight Show with sketches like the president’s “Huge Wheel of Decisions” and a “Trump News Network” bit — which will be a lot less funny when Trump actually launches his own Putin-esque state TV operation. The only saving grace in all of this has been writer Jo Firestone’s stand-out performance as hapless Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

For Fallon to steer into a harsher critique of Trump at this point would seem disingenuous at best and opportunistic at worst. Viewers may be hungry for political outrage right now, but not when it feels forced.

Though it’s hard to predict anything when it comes to Trump, chances are this fever pitch of political news can’t continue forever. If and when it starts to calm down, Fallon may see viewers return to his show to see the stuff he does best: namely musical bits with celebrities destined to go viral. Some of Fallon’s most popular YouTube videos are his Lip Sync Battles, so why hasn't he done one since last April?

When Colbert tried to leave his political wheelhouse and tell silly monologue jokes instead, it was a disaster, both creatively and in the ratings. Now that he’s playing to his strengths, he’s back on top. It doesn’t hurt that he has secret-weapon Jon Stewart in his back pocket as well.

Fallon should learn from Colbert’s mistakes and stay in his lane. Because if viewers are given a choice between incisive political satire from Colbert and watching Fallon’s Trump try to drink water with a tiny doll hand, we already know which they'll choose.