The Trouble With Jimmy Fallon

Host Jimmy Fallon onstage during the 74th Annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Jan. 8, 2017, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

All in all, he wasn’t a bad choice to host the Golden Globes. He had the requisite clever and colorful opening number, an affable demeanor and the ability to improvise. He even started off strong with some postelection shade—though it didn’t erase our memory of his pre-election playfulness with the now-PEOTUS. And it certainly couldn’t have been easy following in the footsteps of the unapologetically vicious Ricky Gervais, or the winning wit and humor of friends, and former hosting duo, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

But then came a moment that can only be described as “cringeworthy”—at least in my living room: Jimmy Fallon launched into an awkward impression of Chris Rock for the Globes’ audience. As Fusion’s Isha Aran recapped:

For some reason, Jimmy Fallon decided that the awards show was the right moment to do a drunken impression of Chris Rock telling a joke about The People Vs. OJ Simpson. For some reason, NBC was into the idea. For good measure, the network cut to a bunch of black people in the audience while Fallon was doing his bit, as if to say, “It’s OK! Really!”


But was it OK?

To be fair, this wasn’t the only racially insensitive moment NBC would endorse that evening (e.g., Sofia Vergara once again mocking her own accent … to make anal jokes? Really?). And admittedly, Fallon’s bit garnered a few legit laughs from the star-studded audience—even by black people (see Cuba Gooding Jr. and Sterling K. Brown—who both acted in The People v. O.J. Simpson). It wasn’t even the only impression Fallon would attempt that night, although he appeared to wisely reconsider his Sting shtick before he took it too far.


But what made the moment especially uncomfortable is that it harked back to an earlier rendition of the same impression—one that was infinitely more problematic. You know … back to that time in 2000, when Fallon donned blackface and spouted some fairly racist clichés while imitating Rock on Saturday Night Live.


Now, before I’m accused of supporting a double standard in which it’s fine for the likes of Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle and the Wayans brothers to don “whiteface” while Fallon’s portrayal is “problematic,” let’s make one thing abundantly clear: Although I’m personally not a fan of anyone portraying another racial group, there are broader institutional dynamics at play here. So, let’s stay on subject, shall we?

Back to Fallon: While he was not the only white actor on SNL to be ill-advisedly painted brown for comedic effect (remember Billy Crystal’s dead-on Sammy Davis Jr.? Darrell Hammond’s Jesse Jackson? Fred Armisen’s Obama?), his prior portrayal of Rock was mired in racial stereotypes, including references to crack, Rick James and sneakers. Nearly two decades later, the Globes moment—this time in reference to the O.J. Simpson trial and resulting hit miniseries—felt equally out of touch, somewhat surreal and more than a bit “meta.” As writer Manuel Betancourt tweeted:


But besides being an awkward moment, was it even a necessary one?

Even if Rock—a two-time Oscar host himself—offered Fallon hosting advice, at what point did common sense fail to advise that it was probably inappropriate for a white host to impersonate a black man’s dialect—particularly on the heels of perhaps the most racially charged election season in American history since the civil rights era—solely for the sake of making a joke about a black man charged with killing his white ex-wife? (See? I told you: meta.)


But if, in true Hollywood fashion, we pull out to the “wide shot,” so to speak, a more telling picture emerges of late-night television’s resident darling. Yes, Fallon is the man who brought us patron saint Michelle Obama “mom dancing,” the hilarity that is “Lip Sync Battle” and the “Legendary Roots Crew” into our homes five nights a week. But as with his good friend Justin Timberlake, it could also be argued that one of the key components of his success has been his staying in comfortable proximity to black culture … even while occasionally mocking and exploiting it. As aptly noted in a 2015 academic paper by David F. Potter:

Hosted by a white male, (The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon) employs the backing of a renowned Hip Hop group, The Roots, of which the core majority are black members. While The Roots occupy a prominent position as the show’s house band and are, at times, included in sketches, they are oftentimes used as secondary contributors. Perhaps the most notable re-occurrence of this trend is in the ‘History of Rap’ performance by Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake—a segment in which the two white performers educate the audience on the development of black Hip-Hop music while The Roots provide a backing soundtrack and otherwise do not participate. This example of cultural appropriation, when analyzed alongside underlying ideologies, is problematic for a number of reasons…In the minstrelized reinvention of black culture from a white perspective, TTSSJF (commodifies) the cultural art forms of black culture for its own passive entertainment and economic gain. Cultural misappropriation as comedy functions as a form of cultural control over manifestations of blackness…TTSSJF’s portrayal and consumption of blackness does not serve as a sociopolitical critique of white dominance, but rather as a celebration of it.


Indeed, it was difficult to watch Fallon’s impression of Rock occurring within mere feet of his musical director and chosen DJ for the evening, Tonight Show bandleader (and Roots founding member) Questlove. After all, even the presence of a DJ onstage was a novelty intended to express that Fallon and, by extension, the Golden Globes were current and cool. It would be fair to say that aside from providing great music, the Roots serve the same function on The Tonight Show, providing Fallon with a type of cultural currency that he would not otherwise possess.

It’s a smart move (if not a novel one), but it doesn’t excuse stupid humor. Fallon, who was perhaps best known for giggling at his own jokes during his SNL days, now seems to be content turning both his gaze and giggles onto us, the trustworthy commodities that we are. It’s a lazy method of comedy that relies less on his talent and cleverness than it does on our cultural quirks and cachet, effectively rendering Fallon—and others like him—the entertainment equivalent of “having black friends.”


I have no doubt that Fallon has black friends—and likely good ones, at that. But as I watched him pace the stage Sunday night, making his grotesque attempt at Chris Rock’s cadence and facial expressions, I couldn’t help wondering, “Who are his people?“

Maiysha Kai is a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, fashion model, devoted auntie and Brooklyn, N.Y.-based, single black bombshell who recently strutted into her 40s. She is also an expert at oversharing who chronicles her attempts at dating—and adulting—on 40onFleek.

Share This Story