The Trump Effect On Late Night Comedy
On September 15, 2016, Donald Trump, then the Republican nominee for president, made an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. During the interview Fallon subjected Trump to a mock job interview and proceeded to ask the future president if he could run his fingers through his hair. Choosing to be a good sport, Trump obliged the request.
Little did Fallon know that this silly gag would haunt him and his ratings for years to come. In the weeks leading up to the 2016 election the interview was criticized by journalists, pundits, as well as other comedians. Many of whom accused Fallon of going too easy on Trump with a common refrain being that Fallon helped “humanize” Donald Trump.
Personally I think the backlash Fallon received was ridiculous. Donald Trump has been part of the American consciousness since the 80s. He doesn’t need anyone to “humanize” him. Besides, the duty of the late night host is to make people laugh, not hold politicians’ feet to the fire. That’s the journalist’s job. I think a lot of liberal pundits and journalists felt guilty for not taking Trump seriously until it was too late. So they projected their blame onto Fallon.
I also don’t think the interview had any real impact on the election results. I doubt any loyal viewers of The Tonight Show would suddenly become sweet on Trump and disregard all of his words and actions because of one funny interview. However most late night viewers seemed to agree that Fallon handled the interview poorly. Fallon would later apologize for the interview in 2018.
As the Trump presidency began to overwhelm the minds of many Americans, more people turned to late night comedy to help make sense of a news cycle that spun faster than anybody could keep up with.
All of sudden Fallon’s comedic brand of lighthearted escapism was no longer what America craved. Late Show host Stephen Colbert quickly overtook Fallon’s spot as the late night ratings king with his brand of sharp and witty political satire that helped to make the news of the day seem a bit more palatable.
After its rise to the top, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert stayed in the number one spot for the remainder of the Trump presidency. Currently Colbert finds himself locked in a week to week battle for the #1 spot with Fox News’ late night entrant Gutfeld!
However the election of Joe Biden in 2020 left many, myself included wondering: Could the return of a somewhat normal presidency be a chance for Fallon to redeem himself and return The Tonight Show to its former ratings glory? Despite branching out at NBC with a Christmas special as well as a new game show “That’s My Jam” Fallon’s ratings have remained relatively stagnant. Even dipping below 1 million viewers certain episodes. Even Colbert’s ratings have slid. Hovering around 2.1 million viewers on average. Nothing compared to his Trump era ratings.
So why are fewer people watching late night comedy? Odds are it’s a mix of these two things. One: The Trump years politicized late night to the point that many don’t find it enjoyable anymore. They’ve gotten tired of the same old schtick every night. Two: Streaming services have made it easier to watch the parts of the show we do enjoy on our own time. Making live ratings all but irrelevant. There’s no reason to be parked in front of the television at 10:30 every night when we could simply watch the good parts the next day.