In the past, Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show has used spoken word as a foundation for a recurring bit where different celebrities perform slam poetry about ’90s TGIF sitcoms. But last night, in the middle of what was quite possibly the most political Tonight Show episode in as long as two decades, spoken word wasn’t used as a vehicle for jokes. Rather, it was used as it has been for decades by black Americans: to tell stories filled with sorrow, passion, confusion, anger, mourning, and, sometimes, hope. The night’s second guest, Riz Ahmed, the Emmy-nominated actor and one half of the hip-hop group Swet Shop Boys, performed an updated, spoken-word version of his decade-old song “Sour Times.”
Prefacing it by pointing out that, every year, the lyrics of “Sour Times” seem to get more and more relevant, Ahmed launched into his performance in front of a darkened Tonight Show set. “The truth is, terrorism ain’t what you think it is/ There ain’t no supervillain planning these attacks from some base,” Ahmed recited. “The truth is so much scarier and harder to face/ See, there’s thousands of angry young men that are lost/ Sidelined in the economy, a marginal cost/ They think there’s no point in putting ballots up in the box/ They got no place in the system and no faith in its cause.”
Monday night’s Tonight Show wasn’t perfect, but it did show that the show is maturing. Fallon, after nearly a year of being criticized for being adamantly non-political on his late-night show, finally tearfully started off the show with a statement that denounced the events in Charlottesville and President Trump’s reluctant response to it. Then, perhaps more by fault of an unfortunate timing of a guest booking than anything, the first guest was actress and social activist Susan Sarandon—a woman who, during the election, said that Hillary was, “in a way,” a more dangerous candidate than Donald Trump.
But Ahmed’s performance, which came after a largely silly interview segment with Fallon, brought it all to a powerful close. It helped the Tonight Show make a poignant statement and make it in style. It was proof that the late-night format can balance the silly and the political, when a host and his staff have the willingness to do so.
While Fallon has seemed to understand his importance as the host of the oldest late-night institution, it has been frustrating to think about his hesitance to understand his responsibility not just as a comedian but as a broadcaster. It is a responsibility that the handful of hosts who have made an impact in late-night have understood. It is one that Fallon’s idol, Dick Cavett, certainly understood. And, if last night’s episode was any indication, it’s a responsibility that Fallon is coming around to. In the grand scheme of things, the latest incarnation of the Tonight Show is still relatively young, and there is still a lot of time for it to continue to evolve.