Much of the criticism of Jimmy Fallon’s lackluster hosting performance at the Golden Globe Awards last night has centered around his apparent refusal or inability to lampoon or comment on the political climate in a meaningful, substantive, even moderately original way. “Ernst & Young & Putin” is not exactly cutting political commentary, and saying that the Golden Globes is one of the few things in America that honors the popular vote doesn’t make much sense, given that the Globes are notoriously a sham voted on by 93 foreign journalists easily swayed by celebrities and favors from studio executives. (Skip to 2:32 in the video below for the live monologue.)
Fallon also notably opted not to address what many liberals consider the elephant in the room: his “interview” with Donald Trump just a couple months before the election, which the host ended by tussling the now-president-elect’s hair and giggling maniacally. Aside from a subtle dig during an unpleasant appearance on SNL‘s Weekend Update and a drunken interview with TMZ, Fallon hasn’t addressed the criticisms of his performance during that interview, nor has he made any attempt at self-deprecation, or even self-awareness. Nothing changed last night.
But Fallon’s failures last night go beyond the superficial issue of his flailing in the political arena. His biggest weakness was on display during a joke directed at Matt Damon about Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film widely derided as one of the worst of 2016. From the stage, Fallon cracked that Damon telling his friend Ben Affleck he loved the movie was his greatest acting performance of all. Damon smiled — he gets it.
But that wasn’t enough for Fallon, whose brand is predicated on the notion that he is “nice” and “makes celebrities look good at all times.” It’s not like that joke was particularly cutting or likely to offend anyone with even a modicum of self-awareness. But Fallon undercut it anyway, mumbling “I liked it!” referring to the movie. He was just making a joke, you see. He would never say an ill word about the illustrious cinematic achievement of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The nerve of some people to assume otherwise.
This is the wrong approach to comedy. There’s nothing wrong with being nice, or appearing to be nice while standing up and cracking jokes. But a comedian who willfully and explicitly insulates himself from the slightest backlash to even his most non-controversial statements is also willfully and explicitly insulating himself from generating laughs, or creating the kind of raucous party atmosphere that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler perfected during their three years hosting the Globes. Say what you want about Ricky Gervais, but he was not afraid to let a celebrity with a questionable past (say, Mel Gibson, a nominee last night) off the hook. Jimmy Fallon let everyone off the hook last night, and the result was a laugh-free evening, at least when he was onstage.
Comedy is fueled by risk. Fallon took none — his splashiest gambits included lazy gay panic humor involving Ryan Reynolds and Justin Timberlake; a stale impression of Chris Rock that rang particularly false in a political climate headed by a president-elect with white nationalists on his staff; and an uncomfortable 60 seconds of nervous floundering when a teleprompter pulled a Mariah Carey’s Earpiece and conked out at the start of the telecast. One of the nation’s top comedians didn’t know what to do with himself when he had to improvise on live TV for less than a minute. It’s as if his teleprompter took one look at what it would soon be displaying, then curled up and tried to go back to sleep. If only it had drifted off for the whole night.