Jimmy Fallon wasn’t ready for Donald Trump to be president.
In a new profile of the late-night host by the New York Times, Fallon acknowledges that his Tonight Show has stumbled in the wake of Trump’s victory in November, but that he and his staff are doing the best they can. “Of course the show has to change,” Fallon told writer Dave Itzkoff. “It’s a different environment. I don’t know what bits we’re going to do, but we’re trying everything.”
Much has been made over the fact that Stephen Colbert’s Late Show — which struggled to define itself after its 2015 debut — has been beating the usually unstoppable Tonight Show in the ratings since Trump took office. The inevitable follow-up question is whether or not that reversal is thanks to the fact that Colbert leans fully into political commentary, while Fallon backs away in favor of musical parodies and celebrity party games. But the one moment that continues to haunt Fallon dates back to before the election, when, during a September 2016 show, he finished a softball interview with then-candidate Trump by ruffling Trump’s famous hair.
By his own admission in the Times’s profile — which is accompanied by a series of alternately jolly and brooding behind-the-scenes photos — Fallon was “devastated” by the tidal wave of backlash that followed his encounter with Trump, which alleged that he’d neutralized the incendiary candidate as a harmless oddity. “I’m a people pleaser,” Fallon said. “If there’s one bad thing on Twitter about me, it will make me upset.”
He never acknowledged the blowback in later episodes of The Tonight Show, a decision he says he regrets. But it would seem he’s still tortured by it, as the profile features a contradictory set of quotes that paint him as both contrite and defensive about the infamous hair-mussing moment and the months of his political-lite shows thereafter.
"They have a right to be mad," Fallon said of his critics. "If I let anyone down, it hurt my feelings that they didn't like it. I got it."
But then, two paragraphs later, Itzkoff quotes Fallon in a much more defiant state of mind. “I don’t want to be bullied into not being me, and not doing what I think is funny,” said Fallon. “Just because some people bash me on Twitter, it’s not going to change my humor or my show.”
Ultimately, though, there’s one quote that sums up both the profile and Fallon’s comedy ethos in general: “I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just trying to have fun.”
You can read the full New York Times profile of Fallon — and see what’s maybe the most dramatic photographic representation of a green highlighter ever — here.