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Can Jimmy Fallon last in TV's piranha pool?

Story highlights

  • Peggy Drexler: Critics were waiting to see Fallon fall on his face, but he scored big
  • Drexler: Can Fallon's "nice guy" humor compete with TV's reality show nastiness?
  • She says research shows mean-spiritedness, inability to empathize is seeping into culture
  • Drexler: Fallon won't reduce nasty humor, but his "just plain funny" style can succeed

A lot of us were rooting for Jimmy Fallon on Monday night. Given the contentious recent history of the host chair -- Leno to O'Brien to Leno -- he was standing on a media trapdoor, with critics just waiting to pull the lever.

Early reviews say he not only survived one of the highest-pressure debuts ever -- he killed it.

If nothing else, a big debut buys you time.

Peggy Drexler

But does victimless humor -- the kind that does not slice, dice and julienne its subjects -- have legs in a culture that likes its entertainment with a serrated edge? It's a question that applies across demographics -- from the prized millennials, who have grown up on the discord of reality television; to the baby boomers, who are decades into acerbic late night as we know it -- and will have to adjust to bits like slow rolling the news.

It's a tough neighborhood, with Jimmy a little like Bambi walking the streets of a war zone. Or, as Stephen Colbert jokingly (but not inaccurately) said on Monday night: "Welcome to 11:30, bitch."

One of Fallon's established competitors, David Letterman, in a recent monologue said that Rosie O'Donnell met her fiancée when her car broke down and Rosie "pulls up behind her in her tow truck." (Pause for nervous laughter at the lesbian joke.) Rosie, predictably, was not amused, firing back to Dave: "I don't remember making fun of you when you had sex with all your interns."

Jimmy's humor can be topical, but almost always with a softer touch: Hillary Clinton saying she doesn't know if she'll run for president is like him saying "I still don't know if I'll have a beer on St. Patrick's Day." Somehow, I don't think there will be any fights with Rosie.

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And in a broader context, it's a tough entertainment media in general. Look no further than reality television, populated by macho slimeballs, back-biting boyfriend stealers and assorted high achievers in the low art of interpersonal nastiness. There is a whole new genre allowing us to make fun of rural America. No, Mama June, we're not laughing with you.

There is even research that the mean-spirited swamp that is reality TV is starting to seep into the culture in general.

Researchers at Iowa State University showed 250 women three scenes: one violent, one frightening and one showing gossip -- including a woman who ostracized a friend. All got a response, but the highest mental arousal was category three, which the researchers termed "relational aggression." In other words, watching people be mean to each other may "prime the brain" to be mean ourselves.

Jimmy's (we're all friends just joking around) humor might be up against something even bigger -- right in his demographic sweet spot. A University of Michigan Institute of Social Research study looked at 72 studies of empathy among college students over 30 years. They found that empathy -- the ability to identify with others and relate to their feelings -- has dropped an incredible 40% since 2000.

Among the reasons: the technology-driven isolation, a generational sense of entitlement and social media's ability to call attention to ourselves. Also responsible is the winning-is-everything sports culture and huge paydays for those who climb to the top of their fields.

All told, if there were a sequel today to Dr. Thomas Harris' classic "I'm OK, You're OK", it might be: "I'm OK, You're Pathetic."

Can Jimmy save the world from mean humor? Doubtful; there is a big market for cynical, biting and demeaning. But let's hope that his first show says there is also room for just plain funny.

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