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.