When fun just isn’t fun anymore

Photo: NBC

Late night TV has undergone a transformation in recent years as viewers seek catharsis after each new day of unending horror from the White House. But as most shows evolved to speak to the moment, one got left behind.

Nothing is so perfect

When things we care about start to annoy us, it matters way more than when we never cared about the thing in the first place. After all, nothing is so perfect that it can’t be complained about. With that understood, indulge me as I now lament what was once my favorite late night talk show.

My dear friend Kayla wrote me last week to express the “visceral anger” she now feels whenever she watches The Tonight Show with our old pal Jimmy Fallon:

I genuinely can’t stomach it anymore. IT’S SO BAD. There are like 120,000 reasons why it’s bad, and yet none of them seem to be exactly it?

Am I mad that Jimmy Fallon is being a giggly little idiot while the world burns? Am I mad at the guests for playing into all this fluffy bullshit? Am I mad at the audience for loving entertainment that serves the lowest possible denominator? Am I mad that some people are just able to tune everything out and experience joy?

Why?! It’s all horrible and I hate it. Hate hate hate.

As much as it pains me, I totally agree with her. I can’t stand it. I cannot stand it. I couldn’t immediately articulate why I feel the way I do either—every reason she floated checked out with me, like yes, all of the above?—but let’s try.

Halcyon days

When the original incarnation of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon began in 2009, it certainly had youthful energy. It was new and fresh, they were doing wacky experimental stuff that hadn’t been done before, it was fun, and having fun and being in a good mood or ending the day with something spirited and silly and weird didn’t seem particularly wrong or out of place.

I guess LNJF began at an ideal time. Barack Obama had just been inaugurated as president, and the country was in an extremely different space where politics was able to go on the back burner for a while. The mood was like, alright cool, Obama has got this… we can sit back and let it ride, and those tea party losers can get over it because it’s a new era and the past is behind us. (The fatal mistake of that school of thought is another topic entirely, but that’s pretty much what it was.)

All of that now feels like it’s from another era of Earth’s history.

Too much of a good thing

It didn’t help that the show got more and more formulaic over time. Let’s face it, when Late Night became the Tonight Show, that only hurt the show’s ability to be experimental and ensured only the mass-appeal type stuff would survive.

Several factors affected the show’s appeal over time. There was a lot of audience participation in the first few years of LNJF, usually almost all young people. I think that played a big part in the community that developed around the show. The writers heavily embraced Twitter (which was itself newer and smaller and not yet overrun by hate and garbage), you could feel like you were part of the show, you could easily get tickets to go see it (as I did several times, too) and perhaps even be on it, and that core community live-tweeted the show every night.

That whole calculus changed as it became less accessible, all the participation in the show came to be with celebrities instead of audience members, and that core community fell away from watching it regularly, leaving only a strange blend of charged-up stans and the lowest common denominator-type audience who don’t even really care about anything, they’re just watching mindless TV.

Making matters worse, everything else then began to crumble.

Those days are gone

I feel somewhat bad for Jimmy—I don’t blame him for Trump’s election. It’s not his fault. He clearly just wanted to keep doing his thing. And with his hand forced by the current toxic political environment, he even began to morph his vision for the show into giving viewers an escape to help them smile at the end of another hard day. But unfortunately, it just doesn’t work. At all. It’s tone-deaf, it registers as ridiculous, and it’s a concept whose time has passed. Maybe it could fit again someday—I kind of hope it does—but it’s sure as hell gone for now.

It’s as if there was a circus going on, and then a tornado rips through, and yet the circus doesn’t stop. It makes me mad at everybody: the ringmaster, the operators, the audience. I look at all of them and I’m like, what the fuck is wrong with you sociopaths?! Sometimes I can stomach a single clip that’s removed from the rest of the show, but I cannot deal with it as a whole. It doesn’t make me smile, it doesn’t bring me any joy, it just makes me depressed.

Kayla later crystallized the problem with the show’s hands-off approach:

By attempting to be so neutral and a fun escape, it does a serious disservice to every marginalized group who has felt especially vulnerable since Obama left office. It ignores them completely and doesn’t acknowledge what a crazy world they have to navigate. And yeah, Jimmy has done his share of PSAs when shit hits the fan, but those moments are few and far between.

The world is literally burning and our country remains in dire straits—it’s even worse than I had feared early on in this administration. And given the grim circumstances, the state of a late night TV show may seem meaningless, but that is precisely what makes this little corner of life so bleak, too: this weird, sad era demands something more immediate and self-aware from its topical shows. By continuing to exist mostly oblivious to this urgent time we’re living through, The Tonight Show might as well not exist at all.

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