Last night, Jimmy Fallon made a joke that totally bombed. This happens to the best of us, even professionally funny humans such as Mr. Fallon, recent inheritor of the Tonight Show desk. But it’s especially surprising that it would happen to Fallon, given that he’s quite possibly the most likeable fellow in comedy right now. Fallon is sort of the Prom King of late night: adorable in the tux, all genuine enthusiasm and goofy sketches and slow jams. This is the guy who gets Springsteen to dress like old school Springsteen! Who brings The Roots together with Adele Nazeem to play “Let it Go” on children’s instruments!
And yet: he was booed. During his monologue, Fallon ruminated on the possible gender of Chelsea Clinton’s baby.
“If it’s a girl, it will get some of Chelsea’s old hand-me-downs. And if it’s a boy, it will get some of Hillary’s.”
Ha! Get it? Because Hillary is so manly in those man-clothes she’s always man-wearing, man.
The audience did not find this funny. There were a few tiny giggles. But mostly boos.
Fallon attempted to rescue the joke. “It’s a little pantsuit! It’s a little pantsuit.” He held up his hands, Vanna White-ing in the air, to show how tiny the hypothetical pantsuit would be. “It’s a little cream pantsuit.”
The boos gave way to quiet, and the suddenly very-loud-sounding laughter of Steve Higgins, Fallon’s announcer/right-hand-man was the only laughter to be heard. Until Fallon laughed.
Then he said: “It wasn’t that hard of a joke. What’s the big deal?”
The whole scene reminded me of the way, on this week’s Mad Men, Roger Sterling told a joke that bombed and he had no idea why. The content of Roger’s joke was an anti-Semitic slur and its inappropriateness is just about impossible to argue. (Definitely several notches worse than “sorry I made fun of heteronormative clothing choices circa 1995.”) But when no one laughed at his story, Roger looked totally gobsmacked, much like Fallon mid-monologue. Both men were telling jokes that would have killed approximately ten years earlier. Hillary pantsuit jokes had their heyday, right around when Chelsea Clinton still had braces. Fallon is supposed to be the host who gets young people: their values, their humor, their nostalgia. This felt like a joke he borrowed from someone else. Like, maybe his dad.
For starters, not to keep complaining about how late night is a bunch of guys but: late night IS a bunch of guys. This pantsuit bit strikes me as a joke that a woman would have screened as “obviously not funny.” Diversifying late night isn’t just about diversity for diversity’s sake; it’s about the perspectives we lose when we only hear jokes from one narrow group of people.
As far as the “dresses are for girls, pantsuits are for boys” element of the joke, well, that’s also pretty dated territory. And it would be the greatest if we could stop ragging on Hillary for dressing the way she wants to dress. In fact, let’s stop ragging on all women for dressing the way they want to dress! That would be spectacular. Workplace-wear for women has been a tricky issue as long as there have been women in the workplace. Pick a suit, no matter how immaculately tailored, and you risk being a woman who “dresses like a man.” Pick a dress or a skirt, deal with the inevitable accusations that the hem is too high, or the neckline is too low, or it’s not authoritative enough, and on and on. And the problem starts long before women head to the office. Dress codes all the way down to grade school are designed with “don’t distract the boys” dictums in mind, all but ignoring the needs and wants of the girls and women.
A couple weeks ago, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (currently starring as Vice President Selina Meyer on HBO’s Veep) and Nancy Pelosi were interviewed together in The New York Times. They briefly discussed fashion, and Louis-Dreyfus talked about her character’s form-fitting, classically feminine officewear. “The dresses are constricting, and the heels are high,” she said. “So there’s a pinched-in-ness that’s specific to the character.” Which is to say: an entire wardrobe department decided the best way to translate Selina’s uptight, uncomfortable-with-the-normals nature was through these dresses that limit Selina’s range of motion. Not, say, a pantsuit. Meanwhile, Pelosi, the real-life public servant, wears “clean, immaculate suits,” as the interviewer describes them, and she explains her choice as “clean and easy works for me.”
None of this is to say that fashion shouldn’t be a high priority just because a person holds high office; I share Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s belief that sartorial savvy and intellectual horsepower are not mutually exclusive. But it’s fair to say there’s nothing wrong with choosing not to focus all of one’s thoughts on wardrobe choices. Or that, should clothing be important to a person, he or she should be make choices that allow him or her to be comfortable and enjoy unhindered movement.
How else would Nancy Pelosi straddle a chair like A.C. Slater in Saved By The Bell? It is difficult, nay, impossible, to Sally Bowles your seat in a dress.