I admit I faded out Sunday night soon after the Eagles won and This Is Us aired, thereby missing the new edition of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Truth be told, Fallon’s isn’t a talk show I make an effort to watch. You either enjoy Fallon’s guffaw-filled interviewing style or it makes you cringe. Fallon’s political humor — a long-standing Tonight Show tradition dating back as far as the days of Jack Paar — is usually limited to wan one-liners, and we know what happens when he gets political candidates on his set: this and this.
All of this makes makes what Fallon pulled on his special Sunday-night show — broadcast from Minnesota’s Orpheum Theatre — all the more striking. Fallon has impersonated musicians before, including Bruce Springsteen and — I think this one is his best — Neil Young. He’s done Bob Dylan before, too … but not like this. Taking the stage as Dylan circa the late 1960s — tousled hair, Ray-Ban sunglasses, harmonica brace around his neck — Fallon did his best nasal whine to approximate protest-singer-era Dylan, with a new version of “The Times They Are A-Changin.’”
Fallon and his writers altered the lyrics, making them more pointed toward the present day. Starting with the opening couplet — “Come gather round people wherever you roam/ And admit that our country don’t feel like your home” — the song marked a departure from all of Fallon’s previous political jokes. Singing to his younger-demo audience, Fallon/Dylan suggested, “Lift up your voices and put down your phones,” allied himself with the #MeToo movement, and got in a jab at Mel Gibson (random, but still interesting), and a plug for Michael Wolff’s book: “The fire and fury is raging.”
Most impressive of all, Fallon/Dylan devoted an entire verse to the football protests that have so enraged President Trump and conservative media. It took a bit of nerve to sing this on Super Bowl Sunday:
Come athletes with platforms throughout the land
Who by taking a knee are taking a stand
And before you shout out that they should be banned
Listen to what they are saying
Perhaps they’d stand up if you reached out your hand
Well the times they are a-changin’.
What accounts for Fallon’s newfound conscience, his freshly prickly political commentary? I’d guess that maybe a comic performer who’s always felt most comfortable pretending to be other people found some strength in impersonating a musical figure for whom direct criticism has always been one reason to exist.
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon airs weeknights at 11:35 p.m. on NBC.
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