On Thursday night, Donald Trump appeared on The Tonight Show and Jimmy Fallon played with his hair.
Other things happened, too. Trump said he “doesn’t know” Vladimir Putin, predicted the debates will be “unfair,” and whined that the press has become “more and more vicious.” But the most notable aspect of the interview was what didn’t happen: Fallon didn’t press Trump on his long, long history of bigotry.
This justifiably made a lot of people mad. David Letterman’s very good treatment of pre-presidential candidate Trump (he called him a racist and made fun of him to his face for making his crappy products overseas) has been circulating ever since.
Fallon deserves the flak he’s getting, if only because anyone who normalizes bigotry deserves to take flak. But Fallon is not David Letterman. The nicest thing you can say about his Tonight Show is that he refuses to do anything that could possibly bring the mood down from “the lightest and least consequential show imaginable.” Fallon is practically programmed to not get in anyone’s way—his show is designed to make cloying, forgettable stunts go viral, and little else.
In general, late night doesn’t have a strong track record of dinging celebrities. Fallon’s predecessor at Tonight, Jay Leno, built his show around not offending the people who fell asleep watching his show, and Stephen Colbert has struggled to make his satire stick to the format. Fallon is the current King of Late Night in large part because making the affiliates happy means never offending anyone, ever. So should Fallon be ashamed of himself? Sure. But playing with people’s hair is what he does.