Jimmy Fallon and Hasan Minhaj on When to Get Political in Late-Night

Cynthia Littleton

Jimmy Fallon and Hasan Minhaj were like magnets when Variety brought them together in New York for a joint Q&A about late-night TV in the age of Trump. The two host very different shows — Fallon fronts NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” while Minhaj recently picked up a Peabody Award for his work on Netflix’s “Patriot Act” — but they immediately found common ground. In addition to trying to crack each other up, the duo studiously shared their stories and contrasted their working styles.

With sensitivity and empathy, Minhaj even steered the conversation into a candid discussion of how Fallon’s world changed in an instant when he tousled then-candidate Donald Trump’s hair on “The Tonight Show” in September 2016. As Minhaj wisely observed: “Time writes the ultimate punchlines on your legacy.”

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When did you first feel comfortable in the late-night space?

Fallon: It probably took me three seasons on “Saturday Night Live” to make it feel like home. I remember one point I tried to sleep over on the stage. I wanted to bring a sleeping bag and so I could karmically, physically…

Minhaj: You can’t be serious?

Fallon: Yes. I wanted to have some kind of connection with the stage and all the ghosts of “SNL” past, and how much respect I have for it. I had it set up — I could have done it. People were working really super late at night. I have kissed the stage. I have hugged it.

Minhaj: Really?

Fallon: Oh yeah, it’s like at the Apollo rubbing the tree stump — you’ve got to. I wanted to make sure I touched everything that Chris Farley touched, and where did Belushi do this? These are idols of mine.

Minhaj: Jimmy, do you think you’re going to be one of these people that’s going to do this for a long time? I think you’re one of the few people in this modern era that can.

Fallon: I do want to. I look forward to going to work every day. The good times are obviously the greatest. But the tough times where the world’s against you, I think that’s fun. It’s part of the ride. Those are the things you remember — having no money, doing standup and eating ramen.

Minhaj: There was really this roller coaster with Jimmy. “Jimmy’s No.1!” “Now we’re we’re mad at Jimmy.” And then there’s the article, “Why are we mad at Jimmy?”

Fallon: It’s all happening and you just gotta go, “Hang in there dude.”

Minhaj: So who got you through it?

Fallon: My wife and tight friends.

Minhaj: Lorne [Michaels] probably got you through it?

Fallon: Lorne Michaels and my wife. That’s who I meant when I said my wife.

Minhaj: I’m still on a rookie contract.

Fallon: Yeah, but you’ve skipped levels.

Minhaj: No, you’re on a max contract. You and Stephen [Colbert].

Fallon: But you’ve already gotten the death threat. You’re on death threat level. I’ve done that already. I’m on the level after death threat.

Minhaj: How do you do comedy when you’re getting death threats? So many people have told me, “Oh man, you’re so brave for what you’ve done — as long as you don’t die. This is the best thing that could have happened to your career.” I’m like, “Dude I’m not trying to be comedy’s Tupac. I’m not trying to just die for these jokes. I want to live to see these retweets.”

Fallon: I look back on [the Trump controversy] and go — please. Doing what I’m doing, I’ve learned from my lesson. People have learned from what they’ve said about me: They’ve learned who I really am. Some people have changed their mind and said, “Oh gosh that was a little harsh. I shouldn’t have gone on a rant of 30 tweets saying ‘F— you.’ ”

Minhaj: Jimmy’s in a unique spot because he’s in the volume business. They’ve just surpassed 1,000 episodes.

Fallon: How many episodes are you doing?

Minhaj: We’re 13! We’ve just started. People like Jimmy, Conan [O’Brien], Stephen — they’re not going anywhere, and I think a thing people forget is that in this space you have to ingratiate yourself with the audience. The audience gets to know you over time. It’s not like that hot miniseries that Variety is covering that was the show of 2016. This is like a relationship that people are going to have for half a decade, a decade, or hopefully even longer. Time writes the ultimate punchlines on your legacy in terms of what matters and what doesn’t matter. The thing I’m scared for the most is I’m so young. I don’t have a ton of experience. I’m just speaking from a very raw and honest place. I’ve stepped on a few landmines and gotten in trouble with a few dictators. But I just hope that I don’t let the noise of social media and commentary and the blog posts written about the blog post about my analysis get me down. Because I want to have the longevity that a lot of the people I look up to have had.

Fallon: You will. You can already tell. You’ve got it.

Minhaj: You really mean that? Your note is a non-note. You don’t give the note?

“I’m on the level after death threat.”
Jimmy Fallon

Fallon: You’ve already gotten it. The note is — this is you. You have a wife. That is your best friend. She wants you to win. You have friends. You’ll see — when you’re in those down times, dark times, there will be friends that say, “Dude, just ride this out, it’s going to be fine.”

Minhaj: The storm feels magnified because of all of this [gestures to social media apps on his smartphone].

Fallon: It’s easy to get depressed. I stopped looking at anything on the internet. I just read papers, and then I thought, “I can’t even read the papers anymore.” And then I started looking at tech blogs. I thought no one in the gadget world or the videogame world is going to talk about “The Tonight Show.”

Minhaj: Jimmy’s really into routers now.

Fallon: I don’t know where to look where it’s not someone trying to do a jab or trying to be funny. I was finally like, ‘Oh please.’

Jimmy, you’ve said that if you had the Trump hair-tousling incident to do over again, you might’ve have handled it differently. Is it frustrating that so much of what has been heralded as good in late-night TV revolves around hard-edged Trump material. Do you hesitate to go there given the past?

Fallon: No, it’s not frustrating for me. It’s just not what I do. Someone gave me advice when I first started: Be yourself. This is totally who I am. If I went out and ranted for a half-hour — that’s not me and the audience could sniff it out immediately. I have feelings about this stuff, but my job with this show is to entertain and make lots of people laugh. I don’t want in any way to incite anger or fear or violence — I’m the opposite of that. If you like that type of stuff, you should watch other things. I want my show at the end of a long day to be a wind-down. We talk about everything that’s in the news. Right now, all it is is Trump — that’s just the way it is. Now we’re getting into the [2020 Democratic presidential field] and it’s a breath of fresh air. We get to talk about them now. I’ll take any funny joke, if it’s about politics or not. I won’t shy away from anything. I have an hour show to fill five nights a week. I really am not afraid of anything. I love a good joke.

Minhaj: A lot of people will ask the question, “Oh why isn’t Jimmy more angry?” The subtext behind that question is, “Why aren’t you being the way I want you to be?” I feel like comedians — we’re mutants, and I defend the mutants whole-heartedly. We all have different powers. I’m Jubilee and he’s Cyclops. We all have different comedic styles and personalities and strengths and weaknesses. Look, the longer I do comedy, I know the thing you have to do is be authentic and lean in to your strengths. Any time I’ve spent with Jimmy — the energy you have on the show is authentic to who you are. When people proscribe things, even with my show, I hear, “You should do more of this.” I can’t do what Jimmy does. He has different superpowers.

For something completely different, let’s talk about where and how you like to write.

Fallon: I usually talk into my phone. I have an idea as I go into work. I hum a song and do some of it and I say this is something. My voice memos have songs and clips of Pete Buttigieg’s voice.

Minhaj: So that’s how you riff it out?

Fallon: Yes, I’m trying to figure out what his voice is.

Minhaj: Do you always have to find that inflection point for the person and go with that?

Fallon: Yes, and the things people say. Like Pete Buttigieg always says, “Don’t get me wrong.” That’s the thing he goes to. So I’ll have a meeting with my writers and I’ll say, “Here’s this, and here’s my take on what I think of Joe Biden — or here’s my take on what I just heard about Trump’s latest tweet.” We riff it out and start talking and joking.

Minhaj: For me, I read the headlines. I like to read the [New York] Times and Wall Street Journal. I actually love not doing Twitter — it’s too much for my brain to process. I’ll go to the opinion page of both the Times and the Journal. There’s political and ideological bents there, and then you can read a cultivated take on a topic. It’s not just a glib sentence. They had to write about it and test their take and an editor had to approve it. It’s a fully baked thing, for better or worse. And then I’ll just free write. Long form, on a notepad.

Fallon: Yellow?

Minhaj: Yellow for standup. But I have this great notepad that has a bound red cover. I use a Uni-Ball Vision Elite. It’s one of my favorite pens. When you write with it you feel really smart. Like Jimmy, I’m a big fan of taking all these ideas that I have and taking it into the room and then vibe and flow off that. I’m looking for the writers or the news team to push me in the opposite direction and for me to push back. And then we sort of refine it. We try to nail it into a sentence [the theme of each episode]. It’ll happen in the room. We’ll write down a sentence like, “I’m lazier than I am woke, that’s why I need the government to save me from myself.” That happened in the room. We’ll yell. “That’s it, that’s it, write it down!” And then we’ll build the episode around that.

Fallon: That’s great. It started with a blank page. When you look around the room and go, “There was nothing on this page yesterday and now here we are.” That’s the greatest.

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