How Jimmy Fallon Sunk Johnny Carson’s ‘Tonight Show’

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The late-night landscape looked a lot different during Johnny Carson’s reign.

“The Tonight Show” legend ruled for 30 years, drawing massive ratings while courting audiences across the ideological divide. His successor, Jay Leno, smoothly took the baton from Carson in 1992, keeping “The Tonight Show” atop the ratings heap against formidable competition – fellow late-night legend David Letterman.

Today? NBC’s celebrated show is now a consistent fourth-place finisher in the late-night wars.

Not only did Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” lap host Jimmy Fallon’s “The Tonight Show” at the dawn of the Trump era, it stayed on top until a Fox News entry showed everyone who’s boss.

Is it something Fallon said? Actually, it’s what he did that mattered to some.

The Leno-to-Fallon transition proved remarkably smooth in 2014, especially since Fallon’s film career stalled after flops like “Fever Pitch” (2005) and “Taxi” (2004). The “Saturday Night Live” alum brought a chipper presence to the gig along with a gift for mimicry. He lacked an outsized political persona, making him a snug fit for a show celebrated for mocking leaders from both sides of the aisle.

Except Team Fallon invited presidential candidate Donald Trump to his “Tonight Show” couch in the summer of 2016, and everything went south from there. Fallon engaged the real estate mogul like any other guest, eschewing hard questions for late-night fluff.


Even more problematic to the hard Left and the press? Fallon playfully tousled Trump’s hair, proving it flows from the mogul’s scalp, not a wig maker’s imagination.

Trump’s critics, both in Hollywood and in the mainstream media, went berserk. Fallon “humanized” Trump they cried, and when the real estate icon beat Hillary Clinton a few weeks later, some blamed Fallon for the victory.

Fallon could have held is ground under those furious attacks, or noted how Blue State USA rushed to Colbert’s side in the early days of the Trump presidency and gone in a fresh direction. Instead, Fallon groveled for our collective forgiveness.

“I did not do it to ‘normalize’ him or to say I believe in his political beliefs or any of that stuff,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. He later told The New York Times, “If I let anyone down, it hurt my feelings that they didn’t like it. I got it.”

The damage was done for left-leaning viewers. They abandoned Fallon’s “The Tonight Show,” preferring the authentic progressive “clapter” Colbert delivered. The former “Colbert Report” host saw a ratings bump that lasted through the Trump era.

Love or hate Colbert’s shtick one thing was clear. He wasn’t faking it.

Yet Fallon didn’t gain much ground from the red states, and for good reason.

His monologues became Colbert-lite, hammering President Trump and, later, mostly avoiding President Joe Biden. Audiences sensed Fallon didn’t have his heart in the anti-GOP shtick like Colbert and fellow late-night liberals Jimmy Kimmel, John Oliver and Seth Meyers did.

So Fallon got the worst of all worlds. He chased away right-leaning viewers who might have turned to his show as a break from hard-Left yuks. Progressives sensed he wasn’t a true believer and sought out the real deal.

Meanwhile, conservatives waited, and waited, for a late-night alternative that genuinely addressed their values.

Greg Gutfeld did just that, and he’s now atop the late-night ratings heap.

LOS ANGELES, CA – SEPTEMBER 18: Late Night TV Show Host David Letterman makes a tribute to Johnny Carson onstage at the 57th Annual Emmy Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on September 18, 2005 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images)

OutKick has reached out to Fallon for comment on the current “Tonight Show” run.

Where does that leave Fallon’s “Tonight Show?” An also ran rather than heir to the Carson dynasty. That’s no place for a comedy institution to dwell, but Fallon made his own bed.

One small caveat for “The Tonight Show?” The program’s YouTube channel has far more followers than his late-night competition. His wacky segments likely fuel his online fandom. Here’s guessing the online revenue can’t compare to what a hit network show delivers.

Written by Christian Toto

Christian Toto is an award-winning film critic, journalist and founder of, the Right Take on Entertainment. He’s the author of “Virtue Bombs: How Hollywood Got Woke and Lost Its Soul” and a lifelong Yankees fan. Toto lives in Denver, Colorado with his wife, two sons and too many chickens.

Follow Christian on Twitter at


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