Jimmy Fallon Is Sorry. But What Does That Mean?

On the evening of June 1, Jimmy Fallon sat behind a well-worn table in a corner of the Sagaponack, N.Y., farmhouse that has become the substitute studio of “The Tonight Show.”

The atmosphere was palpably tense for this typically lighthearted late-night comedy program; Fallon was wearing a sweater and clasping his hands together as he looked into the camera lens of an iPhone held by his wife, Nancy Juvonen. Though nothing has been normal lately, he told his audience, “I’m not going to have a normal show tonight.”

In a sometimes quavering voice, Fallon said he was sorry for wearing blackface in an old “Saturday Night Live” sketch that had recently been recirculating online. He did not specifically mention the death of George Floyd — that would come later in the program, in conversations with Derrick Johnson, the president and chief executive of the N.A.A.C.P., the CNN anchor Don Lemon and the anti-racism educator Jane Elliott. But Fallon broadly acknowledged the days of civil unrest still transpiring and the “senseless violence that erupts and disrupts the entire country and now the world.”

He also said he had been scrutinizing himself, trying to understand what he could do better and how he could use his voice to help break the cycle of anger, sadness and fear.

As Fallon observed in his remarks, simply wishing for things to get better would not be good enough. “We can’t say, ‘Be the change,’ and just sit around tweeting, ‘Be the change, be the change,’” he said. “What is the change? How do I change? How do I do it? What do I do?”

But first, he said, he had to deal with the errors and the inhibitions that had been keeping him quiet. “I’m clearly not an expert,” he said. “I’m clearly a late-night talk-show host. And I screwed it up already.”

If the coronavirus era has forced the late-night programs to take a back-to-basics approach and rediscover their core values, then Fallon, through equal parts intent, accident and necessity, has been steering “The Tonight Show” in a more personal, intimate direction.

Since mid-March, when production of “The Tonight Show” was shut down at NBC’s Rockefeller Plaza headquarters, Fallon has been hosting a homemade version of the program from his 2.2 acre spread in the Hamptons. While his viewers are living through tumultuous, unpredictable times, his answer has been to offer them gentle comedic comfort alongside his wife and their two young daughters.

Fallon, who is 45, had hoped that presenting this stripped-down show in the company of his family would let people see him as a thoughtful, compassionate person rather than an overeager caricature.

As he explained in an interview, “It’s a side that you didn’t know — ‘Oh, I always thought he was just a goofball, silly guy that didn’t really care.’ No, I really care about so many things.”

But this ambition has been sorely tested by recent events. In a nation already racked by a pandemic, Fallon wanted to speak about the protests against racism and police violence; he wanted to make a “Tonight Show” that amplified the calls for change rising up from these demonstrations. But even before he apologized for his role in the blackface segment, it was unclear if he was the ideal person for this job.

Fallon, by his own admission, is an entertainer who thrives on fun and frivolity. He is also vulnerable to a zeitgeist that can quickly turn against his down-the-middle program — he is still criticized for tousling the hair of then-candidate Donald J. Trump in 2016 — and favor fellow hosts who are more comfortable staking out bolder positions.

Topics like the killings of black Americans by police officers are horrifying, and they are perhaps unsuited to a host who is simultaneously trying to account for a past transgression that perpetuated a longstanding racist practice that continues to reverberate in entertainment, education and politics. The recent efforts of “The Tonight Show” and other late-night programs to address these subjects have once again called attention to how predominantly white and male this genre remains.

While Fallon doesn’t want to make a show that is even slightly polarizing, he did not want to sit this moment out, either.

“You can’t watch the news and have it be this raw and then go right back to what you’re doing,” he told me. “I wanted to read the room and say, yeah, I’m dealing with it. I’m watching what you’re watching and I want to help, too.”

Fallon’s public reckoning drew some praise as a step in the right direction, but it is only a first step. In a turbulent period when numerous institutions are grappling with systemic racism and how their own failures and inaction have contributed to it, performers and viewers alike are looking to see if “The Tonight Show” — and late-night TV more broadly — is ready to make good on its promises, or is simply paying lip service to a cause.

“Right now, white America is in the middle of a work-in-progress moment, and black America is like, yeah, we’re going to keep checking on your progress,” said the comedian W. Kamau Bell. “We need you to show your work.”

Aisha Tyler, the comic, actor and TV host, said, “This country has been deeply racist for 400 years, and it’s not going to get fixed because someone goes on and apologizes for a joke that they made 20 years ago.”

“It’s going to get changed,” she continued, “because of the choices that they continue to make over time.”

In late May, I spent time remotely observing the making of a “Tonight Show” that now seems worlds away. On a Thursday morning, staff members gathered on Zoom for a creative meeting and spoke from their homes in New York and Los Angeles about their feelings of cabin fever as they prepared for the day ahead.

“I’m so ready for people,” said Jeremy Bronson, a producer. “I’m ready to see other humans in my life.”

The energy in the virtual room picked up when Fallon joined around noon; he was wearing a long-sleeve T-shirt and his once orderly coif was drifting noticeably into shagginess.

While he reviewed plans for that evening’s show and heard pitches for future segments, Fallon also riffed on inside jokes with his colleagues and spun stories from his showbiz career, like the time he ran into Richard Simmons, the excitable fitness guru, at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. (“He’s wearing short, short, short shorts, sitting on a sequined sea horse,” Fallon recalled. “And I’m not kidding, one leg is behind his head.”)

Fallon is not just his own in-house cheerleader — he is also the lens through which all “Tonight Show” material passes and the final arbiter of what ideas the program uses. He asked for the factual premises of monologue jokes if he didn’t know the headlines that inspired them, and he confidently waved off suggestions that didn’t fit his freewheeling vision for the program.

These digital gatherings have been the routine for the past three months, since the “Tonight Show” staff members started sheltering in place and Fallon began combing his Hamptons home for anything — supplies, locations, help from his wife — that he could use to produce the program there.

Though the process of making “The Tonight Show” has remained intact, it has been accelerated to warp speed and the pressure to keep it fresh has intensified. Gavin Purcell, a “Tonight Show” executive producer, said the sense of urgency at the program now was equal to if not greater than when he helped Fallon take over as host of NBC’s “Late Night” in 2009.

“Normally when you launch a brand-new show, you have a development period where you’re able to think about it,” Purcell said. “This is like, oh my God, we’re doing this — we’re doing it right now.”

Purcell rejoined “The Tonight Show” as its showrunner last November, replacing Jim Bell, a veteran of NBC’s “Today” and its Olympics coverage. “The Tonight Show” had been consistently losing the overall ratings race to CBS’s “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” for the past two years, and after only a few months of working on closing that gap, Fallon’s reconstituted team suddenly had to focus all its energy on just keeping the show going.

Fallon and Purcell both said it has become easier to try out new concepts, whether thinking up original ways to feature the members of the Roots, the program’s house band, or creating socially distanced segments for celebrity guests, like a TikTok dance contest with Jennifer Lopez.

There’s less time to second-guess ideas because those precious hours are needed to record the show in the afternoon and edit it into the late evening. When “The Tonight Show” was still being recorded in its NBC studio, finished episodes were usually delivered to the network around 6:30 or 7 p.m.; now, Purcell said, they get handed in “closer to the 10, 10:30 time.”

Fallon credits his at-home productivity in large part to the contributions of Juvonen, a veteran film and TV producer. She is the unseen hand in the “Tonight Show” segments produced around their house, holding the camera phone and helping to guide her husband’s performances.

She told me she harbors no desires to be a star herself — “I don’t want to be in the school play; I’m not secretly hoping you stick me in the movie,” she said. She has advocated for a spirit of authenticity in this incarnation of the show, even if it creates on-air moments of awkwardness.

“Let’s not fabricate or fake it or pretend we know what we’re doing,” she said. “If we just try, then people will at least feel that.”

More than two months into the homebound “Tonight Show,” however, this approach was having little impact on its audience. In mid-May the show was averaging just over 2 million viewers a night, compared to about 3.6 million for “The Late Show” on CBS. (“The Tonight Show” remains a close competitor and sometime winner in various demographics of younger TV viewers and also performs strongly in online views on YouTube and the NBC website.)

Then, at the end of the Memorial Day weekend, video from a “Saturday Night Live” sketch depicting Fallon in blackface started gaining traction on Twitter. Originally broadcast in March 2000, the sketch imagined various celebrities auditioning to become Regis Philbin’s co-host and Fallon had worn brown makeup to impersonate Chris Rock, an “S.N.L.” alum. (A publicist for Rock said he declined to comment.)

The sketch also serves as a reminder of how blackface, a practice created to ridicule and demean people of color, endures in contemporary comedy. It has shown up on institutions like “S.N.L.” and the Academy Awards, where Billy Crystal wore dark makeup to play Sammy Davis Jr. when he hosted its 2012 telecast, and in the work of performers like Jimmy Kimmel, who wore blackface to impersonate celebrities on his Comedy Central series “The Man Show.” In recent days, Netflix and other streaming services removed the BBC sketch comedy “Little Britain” amid concerns about its use of blackface.

Tyler, the host of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” on the CW, described Fallon’s portrayal of Rock as an example of “the casual, baked-in racism of this country.”

“Black people can’t constantly be the ones raising their hands and going, ‘Hey, guys, I’m offended,’” she said. “It’s empirically offensive.”

Fallon discovered on the morning of May 26 that the clip had resurfaced and awoke to find his email inbox full of supportive messages telling him to ignore the judgments of social media. Which judgments?, he wondered, and then opened Twitter and Instagram to find them teeming with hashtags like #jimmyfallonisoverparty and demands for him to be canceled.

Fallon had some prominent defenders as well: Jamie Foxx wrote in an Instagram comment that what Fallon did in the video “wasn’t black face,” adding. “We comedians I know it’s a tough time right now. But this one is a stretch.”

“Let this one go,” Foxx wrote. “We got bigger fish to fry.”

Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson, a founding member of the Roots and the musical director at “The Tonight Show,” appeared to reference the incident in a tweet where he wrote, “Since we all cancelling? Can do some effective cancelling? When is it time for #CopsKillingBlackPeopleIsOverParty? Where THAT energy?” His tweet also included video of a police officer pinning down Floyd by his neck. (A publicist for the Roots said the band had no comment for this article.)

But Fallon felt he had to respond to the criticism in his own voice. “I can’t let a corporation give me a planned statement to say,” he told me. “I can’t ask a publicist to give me a planned statement.”

“The Tonight Show” was airing best-of episodes that week, so that evening, Fallon posted a tweet in which he wrote that his use of blackface had been “a terrible decision,” adding, “There is no excuse for this.”

He concluded: “I am very sorry for making this unquestionably offensive decision and thank all of you for holding me accountable.”

That might have been the extent of his remarks, but by the end of that week, as a wave of demonstrations spread across the country, Fallon concluded that he would have to speak further on his program. Looking at his own past failing and the widespread national anger over systemic racism, he told me, “I can’t not connect the two.”

But speaking about issues of politics and race does not come as easily for Fallon as it does for his fellow late-night hosts. He does not use his personal history to illuminate the present day like Trevor Noah of “The Daily Show,” who is biracial and grew up in apartheid-era South Africa; he does not have the erudition of Colbert, who regularly features prominent politicians on his show; and he doesn’t have the satirical fury of Kimmel, who now hosts ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” and who has shown an increased willingness to condemn President Trump and his administration.

Still, as Fallon and his colleagues spent the weekend before the June 1 “Tonight Show” clearing the decks for a more topical broadcast, the host committed himself to speaking personally at its opening. Fallon said he did not want input from his “Tonight Show” writers and producers, but with the assistance of the publicity firm that represents him, he spoke with Johnson, the N.A.A.C.P. president.

In an email, Johnson shared some of the advice he gave to Fallon. He said he told the host, “It’s going to take courage and grounding yourself in morals that compel you to speak out against racism and discrimination. It will take courage to push back against what has been the ugly truth of this country for centuries. This is your moment to overcome the inclination to be silent when you see atrocities committed against Black people and to evaluate your personal biases.”

Fallon said he wrote about six pages of his own thoughts, then worked with Juvonen to shape and organize the material.

“We whittled it down to what the hardest things, the utmost honest things were,” Fallon said. “I didn’t really give it to anyone on my team. I said, I’m just going to do something. I have it written out and I’m not going to tell you what it is. And you’ll see it when I hand over the footage for the edit.”

In his “Tonight Show” episodes for the week of June 1, Fallon also conducted interviews with black leaders like Johnson and Senator Kamala Harris as well as black comedians and performers like Bell and Wyatt Cenac.

For some of these guests, the sudden interest from “The Tonight Show” and other programs has been a fraught proposition, highlighting how they are welcome on late-night television only when there are thorny matters of race to be discussed.

In an interview, Cenac told me, “In a moment like this, it exposes how white and male that landscape still is.”

Cenac, an alumnus of “The Daily Show” and his HBO series, “Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas,” said that he still welcomed the opportunity to be Fallon’s guest at a time when so few of his nonwhite peers are hosting late-night shows.

“For myself and other people of color who feel like we have something that we want to say in a moment like this, these become the few avenues that we have if someone’s reaching out to us, because the networks aren’t reaching out to us,” he said.

Cenac said it was not his obligation to absolve Fallon for his blackface appearance. Having worked as an intern at “S.N.L.”, where he saw the show use white performers to play characters of other races, Cenac said that Fallon’s performance could not have happened without a series of institutional failures.

“It’s not as though he just ran out onstage, unexpectedly, and just did his Chris Rock impression,” Cenac said. “It’s hard to just rap him on the knuckles without saying, well, hold on — what is it throughout the entire system that we’re talking about? Where are the people to say, hey, are we sure this is appropriate?”

Bell, who hosts the CNN series “United Shades of America,” said he appreciated that Fallon did not put any boundaries on their conversation during his recent “Tonight Show” appearance.

“Coming on his show the way I did, to talk directly about structural, institutionalized racism in this country, I’m going to take that platform and make the best of it,” he said.

But Bell said that Fallon’s responsibilities did not end there. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that if he doesn’t continue on that path for a year, that I would feel free to come back on and play mini-golf with him,” he said.

Johnson said that if late-night hosts were sincerely committed to the values they have espoused in recent days, they needed to keep demonstrating that commitment in the weeks and months to come.

“Moving forward,” he said, “individuals like Jimmy Fallon with a larger than life following should be vocal and visible when it comes to addressing the systemic issues that plague this country; from police brutality against Black people to institutional racism. For there to be a cultural shift, we need voices like his to acknowledge that the problem exists, engage in dialogue about how to fix the problem, and then actively contribute to the solution.”

Bell said the late-night shows and their staffs also needed to seek accountability at the networks that broadcast them. He said, “These shows need to do their own internal audits and they need to encourage their networks to ask, Are black people distributed throughout this company at all levels and in positions of power?”

Speaking by phone a few days after his June 1 episode, Fallon told me the experience of delivering its opening monologue was “almost like therapy.”

“You can corner yourself with Irish guilt,” he said. “But I was afraid of both ways — I’m afraid of being quiet and afraid of not being quiet and saying the wrong thing.”

The following Monday, Fallon was back to hosting a somewhat more traditional “Tonight Show,” telling monologue jokes about Senator Mitt Romney’s participation in a Washington protest (“That’s like seeing the Wu-Tang Clan show up at a Kenny G concert,” Fallon said) and the reopening of American cities like Las Vegas. (“Casinos said safety is their No. 1 priority, then went back to letting everyone smoke while they play craps,” he quipped.)

He also played a portion of Spike Lee’s short film “3 Brothers,” in which footage from “Do the Right Thing” showing the character Radio Raheem being choked to death by police officers is juxtaposed with real-life recordings of the killings of George Floyd and Eric Garner.

At present no date has been set for when “The Tonight Show” will return to its Manhattan studio. Fallon said there have been “penciled-in things” that fluctuate as the program receives information from city and state officials, but added that NBC’s office building presented unique challenges and it may be some time before staff members and guests are ready to return there.

Fallon said he is letting events dictate what kinds of guests and segments he should have going forward on “The Tonight Show,” and offered an assurance that his own process of education and evolution is far from over.

“Something great is going to come out of this,” he said. “I’m learning, and I’m listening.”