Why Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” Ratings Plummet in Times of Crisis

Fallon hit an all-time low for “Tonight Show” viewership on Monday

jimmy fallon people's choice awards
Jimmy Fallon arrives at E! People's Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on November 11, 2018 in Santa Monica, California.
David Crotty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

In times of uncertainty and stress — like, say, right now, as we’re dealing with a pandemic, an attempted coup, a potential second impeachment of Donald Trump — we often turn to late-night TV to either meet the moment with biting commentary or distract us with its typical celebrity interviews and segments. And if Jimmy Fallon’s latest ratings are any indication, it seems as though we tend to prefer the former to the latter.

As The Wrap reports, Fallon drew the smallest TV audience ever for an original episode of The Tonight Show on Monday night (Jan. 11), pulling in just 947,000 total viewers. Stephen Colbert’s Late Show on CBS won the night with more than twice that amount — 2.03 million total viewers, according to Nielsen’s Live + Same Day fast-national numbers. Jimmy Kimmel came in second place on Monday night with 1.67 million total viewers.

Part of Fallon’s poor ratings might be attributable to the fact that people have been glued to cable news in the evenings recently to watch the latest on impeachment proceedings, but the big discrepancy between his numbers and Colbert’s ratings suggests otherwise. Plus, despite the fact that The Tonight Show dates all the way back to 1954, Fallon also holds the previous two records for the late-night institution’s lowest ratings as well. Before Monday, the worst-rated Tonight Show episode was a Sept. 25, 2020 episode when Fallon drew just 992,000 total viewers following a Stanley Cup Finals game, and prior to that it was an Aug. 18, 2020 episode of his that brought in 1 million total viewers.

It’s a clear signal that Fallon’s brand of comedy isn’t striking a chord with viewers in our current political climate, and he’s uniquely unprepared to cope with the current moment. Fallon is notoriously apolitical, and he faced heavy criticism in 2016 when, just weeks before the election, he had Trump on the show — laughing with him and tousling his hair, which critics argued normalized the then-candidate. Colbert, who has been much more outspoken than Fallon in his criticism of Trump and has a long history of political comedy with his time on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, first overtook him in the ratings in November 2018 (right around the time of the midterms) and has been pretty steadily beating him since then.

Whether it’s because Colbert has the gravitas that Fallon lacks or we would just rather watch someone who will at least acknowledge all the various ways our world is burning (figuratively and, thanks to climate change, literally), it’s clear that Fallon’s Tonight Show isn’t resonating with viewers the way it used to. Only time will tell if he’s able to bounce back in the Biden era.

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