Jimmy Fallon Wants America Back, and Lorne Michaels Might Help Him Get It

The Saturday Night Live season that will go down in history as the one that made President Donald Trump very upset might end with an episode hosted by the celebrity perhaps most closely associated with the phenomenon of normalizing Trump’s behavior.

Three episodes remain in the 42nd season of SNL, but there’s a strike-shaped cloud hanging over them. Should that cloud burst on May 2 and stick around for a couple weeks, the season will have ended with this Saturday’s episode, hosted by Jimmy Fallon with music from One Direction runaway Harry Styles.

When Fallon last hosted SNL in December 2013, he was riding high — believe it or not — from a wave of critical praise for his work hosting NBC’s Late Night, which came to an end two months later. He’d been tapped a few months earlier to take over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno. That news was met with widespread approval from fans and critics alike.

Those days are but a distant memory now. Until recently, Fallon bested his late-night rivals by a wide margin in the ratings, but the Twittersphere and its associated ephemera quickly grew tired of his show’s zany antics and sycophantic interviews, which come at the expense of intellectual depth and emotional range. Adding fuel to the fire, Fallon also made several unsavory appearances in the tabloids, with admittedly sketchy reports suggesting his drinking and partying contributed to a string of high-profile injuries.

But nothing drew more online outrage than Fallon’s fawning conversation with Donald Trump on Sept. 15, 2016, less than two months before the most consequential presidential election in modern history. The amiable host’s hair-ruffling has been litigated ad nauseum in the weeks and months since, and rightfully so. Fallon’s indiscriminate, hyperbolic enthusiasm for all of his guests quickly turns sour and repulsive when future heads of state are involved.

The rest is history. Donald Trump won the election, one year after hosting his own controversial episode of SNL. (I had plenty of thoughts about that at the time, and most of them remain.) At least one voter was quoted in the New York Times pointing to Trump’s appearance on Fallon’s show as an appealing example of a “humble” moment for the 45th president, who is anything but. Fallon dodged the criticism while tipsy during a TMZ interview, and while giggly on SNL in October, when Tina Fey ribbed him in character for the hair moment during an ill-advised, unfunny Weekend Update cameo. Also in character, Fallon smiled and read his next line: “I did it one time! Get off my bra strap, cool police.”

Then in January, he hosted the Golden Globe Awards, tossing off a few Trump-related softballs before launching into an extended impression of Chris Rock. During an interview with Seth Meyers on The Tonight Show, Meyers let him off the hook for the hair controversy, and once again Fallon said nothing. He does not appear to have learned any lessons.

This Saturday, that may change. No one has said so on the record, but Fallon’s hosting appearance seems very much like Lorne Michaels, who executive produces both SNL and Fallon’s show, trying to help shore up Fallon’s ratings against surging timeslot competitor Stephen Colbert. At the very least, Michaels is giving Fallon an opportunity to change the narrative around his persona.

Can Fallon pull it off? It’s doubtful. Judging by recent shows, the current mood at SNL appears to be one of sustained antipathy for the confounding realities of the political moment. At least publicly, Fallon doesn’t share such passions, and will likely push for broader, sillier material. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too. If Fallon wants to be truly apolitical, booking presidential candidates on his talk show doesn’t make much sense. If he wants to atone for his perceived sins in the eyes of those who turned against him, a cynical attempt to rewrite the narrative might prove too craven to be effective. And if he wants simply to turn away from the turbulence and move on to a new chapter, well, he’s not the only one.

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The M&M Report: “Saturday Night Live” Post-Election

McKinnon.pngDevin and I are back in the same room for an episode that touches on the election but focuses on last night’s episode and this season of Saturday Night Live. We talked about our favorite and least favorite moments, reacted to the show’s hit-or-miss political commentary and made predictions about what’s to come. Oh, and there are some bleeps.

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The M&M Report: “Don’t Think Twice” and “SNL” Departures

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On this episode, Devin and I review one of our favorite movies of the year so far, Don’t Think Twice, which is set in the New York improv comedy scene. Then we transition to the “real thing,” assessing the recent departures of several prominent Saturday Night Live cast members and what the news might mean for the future of the show.

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“Saturday Night Live” 41: Space Pants, Alien Encounters and Other Highlights (and Lowlights)

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Assigning a value judgment like “good” or “great” or “best ever” or “worst in five years” to a season of Saturday Night Live is inevitably a fool’s errand. Each season is best understood through the lens of key sketches, breakout moments and overall trends. Below, I’ve listed a few of each from this post-anniversary season of America’s most astonishingly resilient TV show.

And while you’re in an SNL mood, check out my Indiewire investigation into the show’s record of diversity in its hosting choices.

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“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”: Bait and Switch

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is not what you’d expect from a movie starring Tina Fey, written by Fey’s 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt writing partner Robert Carlock, produced by Fey and SNL boss Lorne Michaels, and featuring Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton and Josh Charles.

Then again: what do you expect from a movie with those credits?

The answer to that question might explain the movie’s piddling box office numbers this weekend. The marketing, from the mystifying title to the underwhelming trailers, suggested a broad, silly comedy about a hapless journalist’s adventures overseas. But the actual movie is a lightly comedic drama about Americans embedded among soldiers amid a dangerous conflict that no one, not even the people fighting it, really understands. That’s not an easy sell, even with someone as theoretically bankable as Fey in the lead role.

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“SNL”: Post-Trump, Lots of Grump

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This past week was the worst one in a while for passionate Saturday Night Live defenders like me. In the run-up to this week’s episode, hosted by Donald Trump featuring musical guest Sia, a fervent crowd of SNL dissidents sprung up, as if from hiding, to diminish the cultural importance and creative vitality of a show they either haven’t watched in years or continue to watch while actively rooting against it. (Here are just two of many examples, from critics I otherwise respect: Buzzfeed’s Kate Aurthur and Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson.)

The argument that SNL has never been funny, I contend, is a product of unreasonable expectations. The show doesn’t proclaim to be consistent or even reliable. The live format inherently generates up and down weeks, high and low moments, strong and weak sketches. What makes SNL impressive is the frequency with which it succeeds at being funny despite the difficult production restrictions baked into it — tight schedule, collaborative workflow, competing motivations, high-pressure environment, no do-overs.

But every once in a while, I have to doff my cap to people who have written SNL off, and admit that for all of its highs, SNL is also capable of great lows. Last night’s episode represents the show’s nadir in the last five years, if not longer. And it’s on me, and anyone who watched, for expecting anything different.

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The M&M Report: “Saturday Night Live” Season 41

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On this episode of The M&M Report, Devin Mitchell and I looked back at the first three episodes of the new season of Saturday Night Live, remarking on the highs of Tracy Morgan’s triumphant return and the lows of Miley Cyrus’s…less triumphant return. Then we took previewed this week’s new episode with a discussion of whether it’s ethical, or advisable, to let Donald Trump host.

Since we recorded, the groundswell of groups urging NBC to cancel Trump’s stint has intensified. The network hasn’t backed down. Meanwhile, the customary promos featuring Trump and cast member Cecily Strong have generated controversy of their own.

Peruse the M&M Report category page for previous episodes of the podcast. Thanks for listening!