Jimmy Fallon Opens Up About Struggle to Tackle Politics on 'Tonight Show'

Brad Barket/Getty Images for The New Yorker
Jimmy Fallon at the New Yorker Festival

The late-night host also talked about when he knew his 'Taxi' movie would flop and shared stories behind his 'SNL' Weekend Update co-hosting gig with Tina Fey.

Jimmy Fallon has often said that part of why he doesn't go after President Trump as hard as some of his fellow late-night hosts is that he just wants to have fun. But there's another reason for the Tonight Show host's lighter touch with politics, Fallon revealed during a conversation at this weekend's New Yorker Festival.

"I don't like to be so preachy. I don't want to tell you what to do, what to think," he said. "I'm not an authority.… I have my own opinions but I'm not going to shove it in your brain and the same with politics. I have everybody on the show. And it's up to you to decide who you like and who you don't like. I don't care — you could like whoever you want or not. It's up to you. I'm not going to tell you what to do. I'm just going to show you; I joke about everything. And I have you decide if you think it's funny or not. Maybe you hate dogs. And you like that dog joke I did. And maybe you love dogs and think that was the worst joke. I mean it happens every night. You can't please everybody."

The host, who was heavily criticized for seeming to normalize Trump during a late-2016-campaign appearance on The Tonight Show in which Fallon mussed the then-presidential candidate's hair, seemed tired of having to talk about the headline-making commander-in-chief Saturday night.

"You still do it because you have to do it," Fallon said. "But this guy is just — he just keeps doing these things and making these headlines. You have to talk about it. A lot of people go, 'Don't talk about politics.' I go, 'But he's the headline, I have to talk about the headlines. If he wasn't in the headlines, I wouldn't have to talk about it.' It's topical."

During the audience Q&A, someone requested that he not have Trump on the show again, but Fallon has high hopes for his dream guests: "The Queen, maybe. I think she'd be fun. I like her. I think she's funny. I think we could play beer pong. Bob Dylan, maybe."

And he added, "We tried to get the pope. I came really close to getting the pope."

Indeed Fallon has a religious background, wanting to be a priest after serving as an altar boy, something that fellow late-night host Stephen Colbert also did, and the two friends have talked about revisiting their church days in a public way.

"We actually talked about showing up to a random mass around the city and just reliving our altar boy days and serving mass one day," Fallon said. "We might still do it."

The roughly hour-and-a-half conversation with the New Yorker's Ariel Levy featured the Tonight Show host sharing stories about his childhood, his early comedy days, his time on Saturday Night Live, his short-lived movie career and his late-night run.

And Fallon even sang and played guitar for the audience, offering an impression of Neil Young's take on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song and Bob Dylan doing the Charles in Charge theme. The once frequent sight of Fallon playing guitar hasn't been seen much since the host suffered a serious finger injury in 2015. Since then, there was concern that he wouldn't be able to play the guitar again, but after multiple surgeries, which he detailed on the air, Fallon showed that he's fully healed onstage at New York's SVA Theater on Saturday night.

While embarrassed to watch clips from his time on SNL, particularly his audition tape, Fallon offered commentary on the footage and shared how his memorable turn as the host of the Barry Gibb Talk Show came about.

Fallon said he developed the sketch with writer-producer and future Late Night and Tonight Show announcer Steve Higgins.

"I just said, because I love the Bee Gees, 'What if he hosted a show but he talked the way he sang? And Steve goes, 'What if it's a political talk show? I go, 'That's good.' And there was a quiet guy who was always quiet around our office and we always joked around about what would happen if he ever got mad: Do we think he would just go ballistic? Just scream and say the craziest stuff? So we would just joke around about that guy. And I mixed those three things together," Fallon said. "Because Barry Gibb is like the nicest human being ever, I think he was a little weirded out when we first started doing it. He was like, 'Is this based on a story? Did I yell at somebody?' I was like, 'No.' I might've ruined the man's life but he is the nicest guy.… It's not based on his temper at all, just how he sings his music."

The host also revealed how he ended up co-hosting Weekend Update with Tina Fey, saying that SNL creator Lorne Michaels approached him about hosting the segment but Fallon didn't feel like he was qualified to helm the news-heavy bit.

"Everyone auditioned to be the host of Update," Fallon explained. "[Tina Fey] auditioned and she crushed it, and everyone's like, 'Did you see Tina's audition? That was insane.' It was so funny and I go, 'Wow that was cool.… Would you ever want to do a co-host thing like when Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin [co-hosted] and it was me and Tina?' And Lorne was like, 'That could work; let's try it.'"

Levy and Fallon talked about the latter's short-lived movie career, with Fallon offering his usual self-deprecating quips about his work on the big screen, but he shared when he knew Taxi, the movie he starred in with Queen Latifah, would flop.

He went back to his hometown, he explained, intending to pay for the whole auditorium's tickets to his movie and audience members' snacks and he discovered when he arrived that the movie wasn't even playing in the area.

While Fallon is firmly ensconced at The Tonight Show and was part of a smooth transition from former host Jay Leno, he did witness Conan O'Brien's rocky tenure as Tonight Show host as Fallon was hosting Late Night at the time. Fallon has often said that he tried to remain neutral during O'Brien's exit since both O'Brien and Jay Leno had been good to him. But not only was he not biased, he wasn't in the loop, he said.

"I found out that that [Conan O'Brien was leaving] from one of the audio guys from NBC. He was installing a VCR or something and was like, 'You hear Jay's coming back?' I go, 'What? No, I didn't hear that at all.' And I called whoever I talk to at the network, and no one returned my calls. I was like, 'Is this happening?' So I called Conan, and I was like, 'What's up?' So I finally got it from Conan. He told me. He was like, 'Yeah.'"