One of the most powerful scenes in James Cameron’s Titanic—and arguably more emotional than the death of protagonist Jack Dawson, played by Leonardo DiCaprio—features the band. As the ship begins to sink and panic consumes the passengers and crew, the string orchestra does the only thing that it can do: play music. There is something laudable in performing your job in the face of certain doom.
On Monday evening, former acting US Attorney General Sally Yates was terminated, and then applauded, for doing just that. Yates, like the sinking violinists, saw the end of the tunnel with no light to be found and plunged ahead anyway. However, the reason that Yates was championed for literally doing her job, is because there was some risk present. She risked public censuring and potentially negative consequences for her political career by openly defying the President and upholding her office and the Constitution. Yates played until the bitter end, until the metaphorical water that is President Trump’s increasingly repressive regime, filled her lungs.
Without that risk, simply proceeding with your daily tasks while chaos ensues is less commendable, and more meme-worthy. The Tonight Show’s host Jimmy Fallon has not only continued to do his job, but he’s continued doing so rather poorly. Fallon is not necessarily a bad comedian. His job is one that can only be judged subjectively. But insofar as he is responsible for using his comedy to yield more than cheap laughs every night, Fallon has failed miserably.
In a recent sketch, “Huge Wheel of Decisions,” Fallon attempts to spoof Trump’s initial executive orders. Fallon made sure to deploy all the predictable punchlines (Trump’s tiny hands, the fact that the First Lady is an immigrant, and so on). Fallon mocks Trump’s procedure (or lack thereof) for issuing executive orders by spinning a wheel or picking ping pong balls from a lottery cage. What’s missing, however, is any real biting critique of the man whose hair he playfully jostled on his show last year. Recycled jokes about Trump’s Twitter account or pointing to the hypocrisy in his anti-immigration stance while being married to one is not just low-hanging fruit, but fruit that has fallen from the tree and is now rotting in the sun.
Fallon’s inability or unwillingness to treat Trump without kid gloves highlights his shortcomings as a white primetime television host, and the general dearth of hosts who aren’t white men. Where a comedian of color or a woman (or both, preferably) would be able to deliver material that comes from a genuine place of concern, Fallon flops about onstage as some sort of rodeo clown. Comedy is essential, perhaps most of all in times of crisis. But if Jimmy Fallon wants to continue to host a late night show in the middle of one of the most diverse cities in the world, backed by a band comprised entirely of black musicians, he has a responsibility to his viewers and crew to treat the current Commander in Chief as the serious threat he is, or cede the time slot to someone who can.
We all deserve periods of laughter and brevity during times of emotional exhaustion. The threat of having one’s rights trampled because of their identity is indeed terrifying, and sometimes it is necessary to laugh to keep from crying. But so too is it true that the decline of American democracy as we know it is simply not as troubling for rich white men like Jimmy Fallon. There is a fundamental difference between poking fun at your own misfortune, and being the butt of someone else’s joke, particularly when that someone else is able to flex his immense social privilege and capital. We should all push Jimmy Fallon to be a true ally, and write some better jokes.