In such a fast-moving world, one of the few things that seems to maintain some stability is late-night television. Since I’ve always been a “night guy”, I too find a bit of comfort in the consistency of late-night talk show hosts. David Letterman has been doing it for 30 years. Jay Leno did it for 20 years. Before him, Johnny Carson had done it for 30 years. Hey, even Jimmy Kimmel has been hosting a late-night show on ABC for over a decade. And remember the 2010 Leno Tonight Show time slot debacle? The late-night routine was messed with and we weren’t having it. Americans want the end of their day 1) light-hearted, and 2) consistent, and not necessarily in that order.
So, once again we’ve hit one of those milestone dates in television history as The Tonight Show this week received another new host in Jimmy Fallon.
Peggy Drexler posted an interesting article in CNN’s Opinion section called “Can Jimmy Fallon last in TV’s piranha pool?” asking whether or not Fallon is ruthless enough, cold enough, mean-spirited enough to maintain interest from the late-night talk crowd. She cites recent research from Iowa State University that suggests we are conditioned to act rudely toward others when we perceive this behavior as commonplace (e.g. on TV) and then claims this has trickled down into our society. She cites additional research from Michigan University, 72 studies of empathy among college students over 30 years, which seems to indicate that “empathy — the ability to identify with others and relate to their feelings — has dropped an incredible 40% since 2000.” Now I’m not exactly certain how you measure that, nor am I convinced that it can, in fact, be measured. Nonetheless, I’d imagine that most people wouldn’t find that data too far-fetched. In other words, the egocentrism of modern society seems so palpable today, that even if we couldn’t quantify decreasing empathy, it seems objectively true.
That’s what makes Fallon so interesting. I’ve been watching David Letterman, to varying degrees, since I was twelve. He’s gotten older and more cynical, and so probably have I. I’ve watched him move away from classic bits like “Stupid Human Tricks” to the point where he simply cannot move through a monologue without hammering sex jokes, fat jokes, or ethnic jokes about celebrities and political officials. But that’s not really Fallon’s game, which was the point of Peggy Drexler’s article. Is it possible that our society has finally become disenchanted with the “Look how great I am!” nature of social media, the entitlement of a generation of children who were told, “The world is your oyster. You can be anything you want to be.”, and the non-scripted, heavily edited, pointless viciousness of reality TV? Is it possible that we are collectively seeking to become less nasty to one another, as indicated by whom we’re now choosing as our new late-night king? I hope so. Or……maybe Fallon is just funny.
In either case, Jimmy Fallon teaches us something about the nature of words, something I hope he doesn’t lose as age sets in, criticisms come, and ratings pressure inevitably increases. Fallon’s wordplay as a comedian is unique in this – he’s recognized as one who doesn’t tear others down.
I’m not suggesting that Fallon is perfect. I’m not suggesting he is a late-night beacon of morality. Nor do I know whether or not his Roman Catholic background plays into his, generally speaking, “high road” stance regarding comedy or not. Still, it’s interesting (and important) to see someone known for his humility, positivity, and graciousness get such an enormous platform.
One of the things that’s so fascinating to me about all of this is how it fits into the biblical instruction about words. The Bible places such a high emphasis on verbal communication that Scripture is often referred to simply as “The Word,” even Jesus himself as the embodiment of “The Word” (John 1:1, 14). And the New Testament ethic regarding words from writers like James, Paul, and Peter is clearly that we use our words to build up, not tear down others. Words are of the utmost power and importance.
“Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.” (James 3:10)
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Eph. 4:29)
“(The younger widows) get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to.” (1 Tim. 5:13)
“Rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” (1 Pet. 2:1)
These aren’t random rules of God trying to oppress our First Amendment rights. These are explanations of how we who were redeemed and restored by Jesus into the image of God can, in fact, let our words become more godly.
You see, God’s words build up. Consider the creation account in Genesis. God, who is from all eternity, in the beginning, brought the universe into existence. But what instrument did he use? Simply his Almighty Word. All he had to do was say, “Let there be…” (Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 14, 20, 24). He used his words to create, to build up, not tear down. It’s the same way he turned lifeless souls into believing children (Rom. 10:17). And if you are in God’s image, your words too, in a general but undeniable way, will primarily build up, not tear down.
I’ve probably become particularly sensitive to this as one who has now been blogging for years. It’s amazing the amount of “Christian writing” I run across that is mostly dedicated to knocking down the work, practices, beliefs, character, or mistakes of others. Not only does this not seem to be in step with the biblical ethic about words and God’s basic approach to words, but it’s also cheap. As a recovering judgmentaholic, I know firsthand that it’s incredibly difficult to create positive original content and incredibly easy to rip someone else’s work apart. We see this elsewhere in life too – for illustration, it can take hours to build a sandcastle on the beach, but it only takes 10 seconds for a child to run through the castle and destroy the creation. Furthermore, the child seems to have some strange, innate desire to knock that castle down, doesn’t he? Hmmmm.
A Christian will seek to resist jokes that would generate laughs but would come at the cost of someone else’s feelings. A Christian will seek to avoid discussing juicy gossip that would undoubtedly prove entertaining but might come at the cost of someone’s reputation. A Christian will seek to set aside his First Amendment rights to criticize anyone and anything that doesn’t suit his liking. It’s not easy, and does not come naturally, but a Christian will.
A Christian won’t, however, be perfect at this from here till heaven. Therefore, we repent of our malicious, destructive, sinful words. And the only boasting we do should be in our perfect Savior – “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” (2 Cor. 11:30), e.g. Self-depracating humor? And, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (2 Cor. 10:17)
Jesus is the only one who did no wrong. But he was still mocked, so that we, who deserved ridicule, could instead receive a word of approval from our Heavenly Father – “with him I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:17; 17:5)
It’ll be interesting to see how the Fallon experiment ends. Might be years before we know for sure. Will his gentler words (relatively speaking) amuse? Or do we, as an American public, need to see others criticized in order to live with ourselves and get some sleep at night.