As I get older, I feel growing pressure to take things seriously: my future, my relationships, myself. It’s a big world with high stakes and a lot of bad stuff. Class divisions and microaggressions, mental illness and sexual assault — levity sometimes seems like a luxury I can’t afford.
But at 11:30 p.m., I look up from my work and turn away from my worries. On NBC there’s a sharp guy in a crisp suit with a killer band, and he tells me zingers and makes fools out of famous people. When I watch “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon, the concerning stuff doesn’t go away, but for an hour it’s held at bay.
I need reminding that being an adult doesn’t always mean you have to act your age. Striding out from behind the curtain, Fallon bows and then grins, fist pumping and clapping, childish with delight. He’s just happy to be there. His energy is infectious, both to his viewers in the studio and at home. The crowd screams and whoops. “Thank you for being here!” he cries back. I can’t help but think he means it.
Fallon’s jokes are easy and they make me laugh. There’s little new or insightful about them, but his excitement and delivery are magnetic. He’s like a kid with something to show and tell. I want to pay attention.
That’s more than I can say of a lot of things these days. I try to keep up with all the latest injustices, but I’ve only got so much attention. Some of it I have to use selfishly — on my own complicated, grown-up realities. It’s not that I don’t care about the big world’s bad stuff. It’s that sometimes I can’t. I can’t always read the new, insightful articles about what is wrong with the world. I can’t raise my awareness any higher.
“The Tonight Show” is a release from that, whether you’re watching at home or a guest on the show. Everyone becomes a kid. When Bill Gates was a guest, he slapped a philanthropy sticker over the Apple logo on Fallon’s MacBook. Jennifer Lopez got competitive playing Catch Phrase. Fallon teased Bob Costas about getting pink eye in Sochi, and teased himself about being a bad actor. He always asks his guests about their Instagram photos and their awkward dates. For an hour those are all the stories that matter.
Fallon broaches other, more serious matters, but with an irreverent touch. Of the measles outbreak: “A lot of people never got any shots — or, as Kobe’s people put it: ‘been there.’”
It’s easy to write off this kind of commentary. But seeing it as frivolous is missing the point. Our news cycle is dominated by the ominous. In October, during the height of the Ebola hysteria, the humor writer Andy Borowitz suggested CNN change its official slogan to “Holy Crap, We’re All Gonna Die.” Even fake news programs like Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” and John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” go on scared and outraged tirades. Fallon’s show is different. It’s uncircumspect, unambivalent fun. Neither a guilty pleasure nor a rationalized indulgence, the show squeezes out the concerns that surround me over the course of the day. It gives me a chance to lounge and laugh. Recently, I’ve needed that more than I’ve needed the news.
We can try to carry the weight of every frustration — every bad first draft, every unrequited text, every unforced fumble, every microaggression, every measles outbreak, every loss, every lie — or we can choose to laugh them off, and pick them up another day. Levity isn’t a luxury for me. Without it I couldn’t get out of bed. I wouldn’t have the stamina for seriousness.
So I guess that’s why I like “The Tonight Show” — for the message it sends. There is a time for seriousness, but not all the time. Adulthood is rarely simple, but its complexity means there’s a funny side to things. It’s a choice to see what’s funny — to see both sides of tragicomedy. Even though we do not have studio audiences or a room full of writers crafting jokes, we have that choice. Not every column has to be solemn. We can be serious about our fun.
Nathan Kohrman is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at email@example.com.