Even before he made the jump toTonight Show host, Jimmy Fallon had been doing a sketch called “Ew!” every couple of months. The basic concept of the sketch is this: Fallon plays an annoying girl on the younger side of teenaged — Sara spelled without an ‘h’ — who has her own talk show, Ew!. The show features her BFFs, typically played by male celebrities, stopping by and chatting incessantly about things they either like (Harry Styles, always some underrated old actor like Gary Oldman) or dislike (little brothers, tomatoes). Sara’s stepdad, who just doesn’t get it, shows up somewhere in the latter half of each sketch, squaring it up in his New Balance and his Dockers and walking the fine line between nosy and creepy. Everyone laughs like, “What’s the deal with teenagers, amirite?”
The skit’s appeared more frequently of late — Fallon did one last night with Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, in which the former doesn’t even attempt to cover up his beard while in drag and the latter is as beautiful as the popular girl in homeroom you despised (besides the Madonna-esque guns). They take selfies and make fun of James Franco’s recent predilection for young girls.
The whole thing is basically Wayne’s World with girls who routinely fill up Claire’s frequent shopper cards: a seemingly innocent jab at a highly visible group of people with its own baffling language and customs. So innocent, in fact, that Michelle Obama appeared in an “Ew!” sketch alongside Will Ferrell back in February. It was an opportunity to promote her Let’s Move! youth fitness initiative, of course, but still, there she was, dancing next to a pigtailed Ron Burgundy. Do we have a cool First Lady or what?
Most of these sketches are at least a little funny (Channing Tatum should probably always play a teen girl), and people do like them (millions of YouTube views can’t be wrong). But I find myself laughing with a slight hesitation because, well, do teen girls really need any further reason to feel self-conscious? Talk about an easy target for comedy. I was a teen girl in the not-so-distant past, and still I can barely understand Fallon through his marble-mouthed lisp, so the humor really does fall on his guests. Some of them fall flat (looking at you, Michael Strahan and Lindsay Lohan), and in those cases the skit feels a little like we’re laughing merely at these basic concepts: teen girls deserve mocking, and male celebrities in drag are always funny. At best, this is unsophisticated comedy, something at which Fallon is typically the weakest of his late-night contemporaries. At worst, it reinforces unhelpful stereotypes for the sake of cheap laughs.
Still, flaws aside, I must give Fallon credit for at least putting a light touch on his mockery. It could have come across as suffocatingly irritating and at times bizarre, like Chris Lilley’s Ja’mie King character from Summer Heights High and its spinoff, Ja’mie: Private School Girl. The former series draws its humor through teenaged satire that never breaks the fourth wall, never acknowledges what it is. Ja’mie makes the contestants on My Super Sweet 16 look like Mandela in comparison; it’s humor for masochists in that sense.
In this sense, Fallon is playing it safe here. Something as extreme as Ja’mie would be polarizing to a Tonight Show audience, and as the example of Conan O’Brien demonstrates, being polarizing can be bad for your career. Still, there must be better ways of playing it safe than ridiculing kids who already get more than enough shit from the world.