Jimmy Fallon Says He Was Advised to 'Just Stay Quiet' When SNL Blackface Sketch Resurfaced
"I realized that the silence is the biggest crime that white guys like me, and the rest of us, are doing," the comedian said
Fallon, 45, addressed the recent controversy surrounding a 2000 Saturday Night Live sketch in which he portrayed Chris Rock in blackface. After a clip of the performance resurfaced online last month, Fallon apologized on Twitter, going against the advice he now says he received.
"Seeing what is going on in our country, I'm not going to have a normal show tonight — I'm going to have a different show," he began, referring to the ongoing nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism sparked over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed in Minneapolis police custody.
"I'm going to start this personally, and then expand out, because that's where we all need to start," he continued. "With ourselves, and looking at ourselves in the mirror. And I had to really examine myself in the mirror this week, because a story came out about me on SNL, doing an impression of Chris Rock in blackface."
Fallon said he was "horrified" by what followed.
"Not at the fact that people were trying to cancel me, or cancel the show, which is scary enough, but the thing that haunted me the most was how do I say, 'I love this person, I respect this guy more than I respect most humans, I am not a racist, I don't feel this way,'" he said. "And instead, what I kept getting advised was to just stay quiet and to not say anything. And that's the advice because we're all afraid."
"I took it for a minute. I took the advice and I thought, 'Oh God, I'm going to do this wrong. You're right, I'm going to say something and get myself into even more trouble. I'm going to make this worse. I don't know what to do,'" he continued. "So I thought about it, and I realized that I can't not say, 'I'm horrified and I'm sorry and I'm embarrassed.' What that small gesture did for me was break my own silence, and then what I started to do is talk to some experts, some of which are here tonight and this week, and I realized that the silence is the biggest crime that white guys like me, and the rest of us, are doing."
"We need to say something," he insisted. "We need to keep saying something. And we need to stop saying 'That's not okay' more than just one day on Twitter."
Fallon said he realized he "needed to get educated about how to stop the silence, and the fear of saying the wrong thing."
"I need to be, we all need to be, talking about this," he said. "I spoke to someone incredible and brilliant who I think can help us all out in this incredibly sensitive and in-our-face subject that we need to deal with."
He then welcomed his first guest, NAACP president Derrick Johnson, noting that he wanted to work on "being a better ally."
"We are all born flawed, but flawed is part of the journey that we are on so we can try to get to perfection," Johnson said. "If anyone can stand up and say 'I haven't made a mistake,' run, because that person is clearly a liar."
Asked how to keep the momentum going, Johnson advised, "Keeping the dialogue open, appreciating the uniqueness we all bring to the table and celebrating that uniqueness and not allowing demagogues to create otherness from people who may be different."
"Racism is a learned behavior, and for us to unlearn a behavior we have to be honest about it and create spaces where we can talk about it," he continued. "Most importantly, be the example we want to see. So peer-to-peer conversations, using one's platform to promote a more positive outlook at life as it relates to other people's uniqueness and difference becomes important."
Fallon vowed to continue working with the NAACP, establishing that he would check in with Johnson every couple of months "just to see how I'm doing and what else I can be doing to help."
Later in the show, he welcomed CNN's Don Lemon who reflected on the protests and the current political climate.
"I don't like seeing the violence, I don't like seeing the rioting, but I am heartened by all the young people who are out there fighting for their rights and saying, 'Enough is enough. The time has come,'" said Lemon, 54. "And by the diversity of people who are out there — it's not just black kids, it's not just kids of color, white people are out there, too."
"Maybe [the system] has to break all the way down so that we can fix it and put it back together," he continued. "I know some people may think that's ominous, but for me, that's positive. That's a glass half-full. Because we cannot go back to the way it way. We can't."
Fallon first apologized for the sketch on May 28 after the resurfaced clip went viral on Twitter and the hashtag #JimmyFallonIsOverParty began trending. The skit, which aired in 2000, also features SNL alumnus Darrell Hammond. In the video, Fallon impersonated Rock, 55, while wearing dark brown makeup and a textured wig.
"In 2000, while on SNL, I made a terrible decision to do an impersonation of Chris Rock while in blackface," Fallon tweeted. "There is no excuse for this."
"I am very sorry for making this unquestionably offensive decision," he added. "And thank all of you for holding me accountable."
To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:
•Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
•ColorofChange.org works to make government more responsive to racial disparities.
•National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help black youth succeed in college and beyond.