Jimmy Fallon Talks Trump Hair-Ruffling: "I Almost Did it to Minimize Him"
The 'Tonight Show' host opens up about the polarizing moment in his interview with the future president and how the backlash left him "devastated" and regretting not addressing it on his show.
Jimmy Fallon has opened up about his much-maligned playful interview with Donald Trump last fall, during which the Tonight Show host rumpled the future president's hair.
Fallon's behavior was swiftly criticized as normalizing a divisive candidate prone to making shocking statements and using hateful rhetoric.
Speaking to The New York Times in an extended profile, Fallon seems disappointed by the response to the incident and reveals he thinks he should have addressed the backlash on his show.
"They have a right to be mad,” Fallon says. “If I let anyone down, it hurt my feelings that they didn’t like it. I got it.”
“I didn’t do it to humanize him,” Fallon explains. “I almost did it to minimize him. I didn’t think that would be a compliment: ‘He did the thing that we all wanted to do.’”
The swift backlash once the interview aired, however, led Fallon to avoid Twitter and online news.
“I’m a people pleaser,” he tells the Times. “If there’s one bad thing on Twitter about me, it will make me upset. So, after this happened, I was devastated. I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just trying to have fun.”
Still, Fallon didn't address the controversy on-air and acknowledges that he "should have."
“I didn’t talk about it, and I should have talked about it,” he says. “I regret that.”
Tonight Show executive producer Lorne Michaels also offers that when Trump appeared on the show, he wasn't seen as likely to win the 2016 election.
“I don’t think anybody was focused on him winning, or that possibility,” Michaels says. “It had been absolute, bedrock certainty that Hillary Clinton was winning that election. There was no doubt, certainly in the news department in our building.”
NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke tells The Times that he spoke with Fallon after the Trump incident and encouraged the host to press on.
The Times interview with Fallon comes as the show's CBS competitor The Late Show With Stephen Colbert has been on a ratings hot streak, regularly surpassing Fallon's Tonight Show in total viewers, while the NBC program continues to dominate in the 18-49 demo.
Burke tells the Times he's not concerned with the ratings development, saying of the once-dominant late-night show, "That red-hot performance was almost certain to end at some point, but he’s still head and shoulders above his competition, creatively.”
Fallon, meanwhile, both jokes about the ratings and says he isn't paying attention to the numbers.
“We’re winning in something. People in the height requirement between 5-7 and 5-11, we’re No. 1, from 11:50 to 11:55," he says. "I never, ever care. I’ll know when someone fires me.”
Fallon only directly comments on Colbert once in the interview, joking of the backlash the CBS host received for a particularly crude joke about Trump's relationship with Vladimir Putin.
"I shouldn’t have started the hashtag #FireColbert," Fallon quips. "Looking back on it, I went too far."
Even though Colbert has found his groove sharply criticizing the president, Fallon was defiant that he doesn't plan to change his show's broader approach.
“I don’t want to be bullied into not being me, and not doing what I think is funny. Just because some people bash me on Twitter, it’s not going to change my humor or my show," Fallon says. "It’s not ‘The Jimmy Fallon Show.’ It’s ‘The Tonight Show.’”
Both Burke and NBC entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt add there's been no directive from them or the company to change the Tonight Show format at a time in which late-night political criticism is all the rage.
“We tell him what we think, but we don’t tell him what to do,” Burke says. "If the world gets a little snarkier, I don’t think the answer is for Jimmy to get snarkier. I think the answer is for Jimmy to be Jimmy.”
Fallon also addresses the show's recent staff turnover, with showrunner Josh Lieb and head writer A.D. Miles among those leaving, calling the exits, "growing pains."
And he denies rumors, fueled by a New York Post article, that he has a drinking problem.
“I could never do a day-to-day job if I was drinking every night,” he said. “That’s just kicking you when you’re down.”