Jimmy Fallon is feeling a little defensive now about one of his most famous bits during the presidential campaign.
Almost a year after it occurred, Fallon said his critics “have a right to be mad” at him for playfully tousling then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s hair on “The Tonight Show” in the midst of a contentious presidential campaign. The joke was quickly met with outrage in articles and social media posts that accused Fallon of “normalizing” the controversial candidate.
“I didn’t do it to humanize him,” Fallon told the New York Times for an article published Wednesday. “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 clip is less than a minute and a half but amassed more than 11.5 million views on YouTube.
“Because the next time I see you, you could be the president of the United States, I just wanted to know if there’s something we could do that’s not presidential really,” Fallon began, eventually asking, “Can I mess your hair up?”
He proceeded to do just that, shouting “Donald Trump, everybody.”
Fallon likely didn’t expect the backlash, but it was swift and strong.
The Atlantic called the moment “a destructive and self-indulgent mistake.” Fellow late-night comedian Samantha Bee attacked both Fallon and his network NBC for “inviting him on their flagship comedy programs to show millions of Americans what a fun guy he is.” Slate asserted, “Fallon was working from an old, outdated script, one that misses both the moral and the mortal threat of this year’s election.” Vulture called Fallon “Salacious Crumb to Trump’s Jabba the Hutt,” referring to a jester to an evil creature in “Star Wars.” Comedian Billy Eichner called the moment “naive and a bit of a slap in the face” to the LGBT community.
Twitter users joined in. “I learned tonight that Jimmy Fallon is half the man Stephen Colbert is. I’m so ashamed of Jimmy for ‘normalizing’ Herr Trump,” wrote one. “Jimmy Fallon: Don’t put Trump on TV & treat him like a buddy & muss his hair. It humanizes a monster. Stop it,” wrote another.
Fallon didn’t take it well.
“After this happened, I was devastated. I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just trying to have fun,” Fallon said, adding he realized at the time, “I just can’t read Twitter. Then I can’t read the news. I can’t read the internet.”
The moment wasn’t out of character for Fallon, who has always trafficked in more apolitical comedy than his contemporaries.
While Fallon was mussing Trump’s hair and tossing softball questions to Hillary Clinton, “Late Night” host Seth Meyers “banned” Trump from appearing on his show and began tearing into the candidate in his “A Closer Look” segments.
“The Late Show” host Stephen Colbert — Fallon’s time slot rival who skewered conservative politicians and pundits alike for years on “The Colbert Report” — has focused his comedic scalpel on Trump.
Perhaps tellingly, shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Colbert’s show boasted higher ratings than Fallon’s for the first time since Colbert’s debut. Since then, “The Late Show” has regularly surpassed “The Tonight Show” in ratings, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Despite the backlash and despite his recent losses in the ratings battle, Fallon said he won’t change his style.
“I don’t want to be bullied into not being me, and not doing what I think is funny,” he said. “Just because some people bash me on Twitter, it’s not going to change my humor or my show.”