Jimmy Fallon & The Downfall of Toxic Media Workplaces | Controversy Explained

Jimmy Fallon is the latest seemingly-nice media figure to be outed as a terrible boss. So what allegedly went down, and why does it seem like so many dream media jobs are actually nightmares? Here’s our Take!

Jimmy & The Tonight Show

A recent Rolling Stone exposé cracked open the light and fun facade of Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show and brought to light the darkness that was hiding beneath the glitz and glamor. While Fallon has maintained a relatively positive and beloved public persona, behind the scenes it was a different story. In the article, a number of people who have worked for the show over the years laid out how Jimmy created a miserable work environment, apparently often belittling and being dismissive of the cast and crew and lashing out when things didn’t go the way he wanted. In addition to sometimes seeming too inebriated to function, they said that if Fallon was having a bad day he would make it everyone’s problem, with a past employee detailing, “It was like, if Jimmy is in a bad mood, everyone’s day is fucked. People wouldn’t joke around in the office, and they wouldn’t stand around and talk to each other. It was very much like, focus on whatever it is that you have to do because Fallon’s in a bad mood, and if he sees that, he might fly off.”

Working in late night tv is a dream job for many, with The Tonight Show being one of the most coveted programs due to its illustrious history. But it was exactly this combination of admiration and desire to do good work, combined with Fallon’s own power as a well-known industry figure and host of the show, that made it so hard for those suffering to speak up – one employee noted, “It just always felt like, ‘You should be grateful that you have a job, and you should be grateful that you have this position at this show, at this network. Everyone wants to be in this spot. You have worked hard to get here — it shouldn’t be a thing where you’re being ungrateful..” Even as employees endured dire mental and physical impacts from the mistreatment and stress, a revolving door of yes-men showrunners and ineffective HR made it impossible for employees to enact change even when they did speak up. One former employee told Rolling Stone, “Mentally, I was in the lowest place of my life. I didn’t want to live anymore. I thought about taking my own life all the time.”

After the exposé was published, representatives from NBC released a rather hollow defense of the program, stating, “As in any workplace, we have had employees raise issues; those have been investigated and action has been taken where appropriate.” Which, given the number and severity of concerning happenings and outright workplace abuses detailed in the Rolling Stone article, leads one to wonder what NBC does consider appropriate instances in which to take action. And in a Zoom call to employees, Fallon gave his own ‘sorry if you were offended’ non-apology, stating that he felt bad and was “Sorry if I embarrassed you and your family and friends…” Only time will tell if this exposé and the airing of Fallon and The Tonight Show’s many issues will affect any actual change, or if the team will really be able to just keep chugging along like nothing happened.

While this might be the loudest pushback Fallon has received, this isn’t the first time his ‘nice guy’ persona has been marred by scandal. In 2019, photos surfaced of Fallon in blackface during an 2000 SNL sketch in which he was playing Chris Rock, but after Fallon apologized on Twitter this was mostly swept back under the rug. Fallon was implicated in the grooming lawsuit against former SNL castmate Horatio Sanz, with the allegation that Fallon, along with others, “enabled Sanz’s crimes of sexual assault and battery” of the teenager. Concerns about problems resulting from alleged substance abuse issues have also followed Fallon for years, with a 2016 New York Post article alleging that NBC bosses were ready to get rid of Fallon due to his lack of self-control – though Fallon later denied this in a New York Times article the following year. In her 2011 book Bossypants, Tina Fey relayed a story from the SNL writer’s room in which Fallon tried to use boy’s-club “humor” to belittle and intimidate new comer Amy Pohler (though thankfully she was not having it and immediately shut him down.) But regardless of what may have come out about Fallon over the years, he’s always been able to slink behind the shield of his ‘aw shucks, but I’m such a nice guy’ persona and avoid any real accountability – and he certainly isn’t the only one…

A Widespread Problem

The Jimmy Fallon exposé seems to be part of a growing trend of what appear to be dream media workplaces run by friendly, relatable celebrities turning out to be just the opposite. Lizzo, long hailed for her kindness and body-positivity, was recently sued by her former employees, who alleged that she body-shamed and sexually harassed them. Fans were stunned as this seemed to go against everything that Lizzo stood for. More and more people who had previously worked with Lizzo started to share their own stories of mistreatment, and it became clear that it wasn’t just a fluke. Lizzo did eventually come out and deny everything, calling them, “as unbelievable as they sound,” but the volume of corroboration of details of mistreatment make the allegations impossible to brush aside. Cult hit The Other Two surprised everyone when, just before the season three finale, it was revealed that the show had been canceled amid a wave of HR complaints. The show itself lampooned bad behind the scenes behavior in Hollywood, so the fact that the showrunners Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider themselves were alleged to have engaged in the same bad behavior they were sending up was simultaneously disappointing and, unfortunately, not all that surprising. It was, apparently, even an open secret in Hollywood with Tina Fey (again!) openly making a joke about it well before the info leaked to the public.

The largest recent downfall of a once-beloved persona, however, was that of talk show host and entertainer Ellen DeGeneres. After being the undisputed queen of daytime tv for years, a Buzzfeed investigation into allegations of racism, intimidation, and more going on behind the scenes at The Ellen DeGeneres Show brought her media empire crumbling down. Like Fallon, DeGeneres was loved by audiences for being nice, never too political or making them think too much, and generally “relatable.” And according to the allegations, her facade of niceness was also a smokescreen to hide bad behavior of the entire leadership team off screen. Employees described the microaggressions and other abuses they endured while working on the show, and just like with The Tonight Show, said that when they tried to go to upper management or HR for help, they were shut down (or even reprimanded.) One former employee told Buzzfeed, “That’s the definition of a toxic work environment, where they make you feel like you’re going insane and then you’re like, no, everything I was feeling was right.”

Why These Scandals Hit So Hard

Toxic workplaces are nothing new, and neither is the understanding that glowing, kind media personalities usually aren’t that way in real life. So why do these scandals in particular seem to become such big news? A big reason is the parasocial relationships people develop with their celebrities, in which people feel an imagined level of closeness and like they have a real connection to a celebrity or other public figure. As we’re inundated more and more with celebrities, appearing on our TVs and our phones and our computers, most of whom are working hard to appear relatable to the masses, it’s no surprise that many people start to feel like they really do know these celebs to some degree. Some research suggests that 51% of Americans have likely been in parasocial relationships, and they can have positive qualities, like making people feel less alone during hard times. But these parasocial relationships can also have the negative effect of fans feeling like they know the truest version of the celebrity, and so when information comes out that doesn’t align with that image they have in their head, it’s shocking. Celebrities who worked hard to build a facade of niceness, like Fallon, DeGeneres, and Lizzo, getting outed as not being the fun and relatable friend they had posed themselves can come as a real blow to people who looked up to them.

Misplaced belief in a powerful person’s ‘inner goodness’ leading to an even more spectacular downfall was also a large part of the end of the #Girlboss era. As these women had come to prominence, there seemed to be a general assumption that because they were breaking the glass ceiling, they’d also be changing up the way things were done behind the scenes for the better as well. But in fact, they turned out to be just as ruthless as any male CEO that had come before them. Instead of the ‘nice and relatable’ shtick that’s seeing its downfall today, those girlbosses rode a wave of performative feminism to the top. Many people at the time really bought into the idea that they were bringing change to the world, and so that made their downfalls hit that much harder – it wasn’t just the loss of a female CEO or two, but the loss of a vision of a better, more equal future. Whether they’re with a “relatable” celebrity or a #girlboss climbing her way to the top, parasocial relationships make one feel truly invested in the success of this person they don’t even know – so to watch that all crumble to dust can be painful.

But even people who don’t have parasocial relationships with these celebrities, or even really care about them at all, also seem to get pulled into the gossip. Toxic workplaces are everywhere, but it can often feel like something no one really talks about outside of clickbait articles. So to see people get to open up about the terrible goings on behind the scenes at these fancy media jobs can hit home in two ways: one, confirming that even jobs that seem perfect can have deep problems; and two, the feeling of schadenfreude at seeing a fake-nice millionaire get taken to task for bad behavior. And, of course, by virtue of being a part of the media itself, these entities are widely known, so everyone has their own opinion to share.

The Facade of Kindness

The mask of kindness finally slipping also adds an extra punch to these media downfalls – no one’s surprised when the Logan Roys and Miranda Priestlys of the world are assholes, but when it’s someone whose entire brand is being relatable the shock can be amplified. And one big thing these recent media workplace meltdowns have highlighted is the danger that can come from a powerful person hiding behind a facade of kindness and relatability. People being afraid to speak up about mistreatment in the workplace has been an issue across sectors for, well, pretty much forever, but it’s especially been a worry for women and minorities who are concerned that they’ll face retaliation or be seen as an attention seeker. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimates that 75% of all workplace harassment incidents go unreported. And when the boss is not just a famous person but a beloved celebrity, speaking out can be even more difficult – not only do you have to worry about workplace retaliation but also being disbelieved or even attacked by the public. Putting on a fake act of niceness to hide one’s more nefarious behavior is a well known abuse tactic, wherein the abused ends up surrounded by people claiming that “well they’re just so nice, I can’t believe they’d do such a terrible thing.” And again, when that fake nice person is a world famous celebrity, this issue magnified even further – people don’t want to believe that someone they looked up to could possibly treat others poorly, and so will go into denial en masse. This combination of admiration and fear can also make the person suffering the abuse stick it out longer, hoping that things will turn around and they can finally have the positive experience they had imagined. One former Tonight Show staffer told Rolling Stone, “It’s a bummer because it was my dream job. Writing for late night is a lot of people’s dream jobs, and they’re coming into this and it becomes a nightmare very quickly.”

Famous people are also aware of the power imbalance between them and those that work for them, and unfortunately some aren’t afraid to use that to their own advantage at other people’s expense. People are afraid not only of retaliation via firing or demotion, but of appearing ungrateful, or of letting everyone else down. And these persona-centric media brands make sure that everyone feels like they should be willing to do whatever it takes and put up with anything in the quest to make the star happy – and that they should be grateful for the opportunity. As one former Ellen employee told Buzzfeed News, “They feel that everybody who works at The Ellen Show is lucky to work there — ‘So if you have a problem, you should leave because we’ll hire someone else because everybody wants to work here.’” This power all being consolidated in a single individual also leads to the hiring of ineffective yes-men in management who won’t ever tell the star no, because the star is the only person on the team that’s irreplaceable (and they’ll make sure everyone knows it.)

Changing Work For The Better (In Media & Beyond)

In the post-pandemic return to work, people across the board have been incredibly unhappy – a Gallup poll found that 50% of workers reported feeling stressed at their jobs, 60% reported feeling emotionally unattached, and 19% were outright miserable. After feeling the change during the pandemic, people have started to get pushed back into toxic workplaces that are trying to “go back” to how things were, and people aren’t here for it. “Unfair treatment at work,” from mistreatment to bad corporate policies to a myriad of other issues, was reported as the number one cause of job dissatisfaction. And those working in the media are no exception – in fact, the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA have been on strike for weeks in an attempt to secure fair pay and better working conditions. Everyone is fed up with being mistreated in the workplace and are fighting back.

No workplace is ever going to be perfect, especially in a high stress environment filled with big egos like media, but there are ways to make things less terrible. Companies need to create environments where employees feel like they can speak up when they’re being mistreated, even if it’s by the star – and, importantly, where they’ll be taken seriously and won’t have to live in fear of retribution. It’s also important for the stars themselves to reign in their own egos, and appreciate all of these people that are helping them create this amazing thing that just so happens to have their name on it. Every single TV show, movie, or even music star’s career is a team effort, and every single person on that team deserves to be treated fairly and with respect. Conan O’Brien, for example, (who was supposed to take over The Tonight Show instead of Fallon,) has often had current and former employees speak very highly of him and how great he is to work for – noting that he remembers everyone’s name and, y’know, treats them like human beings.

But change won’t come just because one or two stars do the right thing here and there, it’s going to take a concentrated effort across the media landscape to change working conditions for the people who make the magic. And the same is true on a larger scale across sectors – we all need to continue to work together to bring unjust conditions to light and push back against mistreatment in any way we can, because even small wins can be the first domino that leads to huge changes down the line.