LOS ANGELES — Turns out you can teach an old time slot new tricks.
The recent passing of “The Tonight Show” torch from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon sparked the inevitable state-of-the-genre conversation. In a world ruled by tweets and memes, Netflix and YouTube, is there even a place for late-night talk shows anymore?
Don’t know about talk shows plural, but there’s certainly a place for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” if only because Fallon’s been rigorously carving it out from the calcified post-nightly news landscape himself.
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Whether he’s playing Flip Cup with Annette Bening, photo-bombing tourists with Jon Hamm, taking a Polar Plunge dare from Rahm Emanuel or just chatting it up with the endless array of his “very favorite” people, Fallon has, in less than two months, reframed the franchise and sparked the kind of audience excitement “The Tonight Show” hasn’t seen in years.
The ratings have soared, and why not? Where else are you going to see Michelle Obama hamming it up with Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson playing Pictionary with Bradley Cooper or Idina Menzel killing the freshly Oscar-anointed “Let It Go” with only toy instruments as accompaniment?
Fallon’s midcareer energy infuses his “Tonight Show” with the kind of good-natured, slightly silly “welcome to the party” feel that Ellen DeGeneres brought so successfully to daytime (and more divisively to this year’s Oscars). Night after night there is music and games, pranks and funny anecdotes, all involving A-list stars with whom Fallon interacts as admiring peer rather than benevolent dictator.
It may still be difficult to imagine Fallon interviewing the president (although if Zach Galifianakis can do it …) or taking on a celebrity with real issues (a la the famous Leno / Hugh Grant interview). But he happily brought Randy Newman on in early weeks to criticize “The Tonight Show’s” move from Los Angeles to New York, which Newman then punctuated by playing “I Love L.A.”
Admittedly, Fallon gave us quite a scare in the beginning. His Feb. 17 debut was nothing if not underwhelming. Uncharacteristically subdued and pale, Fallon spent much of the hour downplaying his worthiness to accept the mantle.
If it hadn’t been for U2 (who played on the roof of Rockefeller Center) and Stephen Colbert (who showered Fallon with pennies), the first show would have been a total dud.
Whether it was a clever exercise in expectation management or just a bad case of opening-night jitters, that initial clammy uncertainty is now just a distant memory. Fallon has swiftly claimed ownership of the iconic hour in a way that pays homage to tradition — relax everyone, there will still be an opening monologue — but, mercifully, does not bow to it.
Under Johnny, and then Jay, “The Tonight Show” became very pleased with itself. For up-and-coming comedians, snagging a “spot on Carson” could make or break a career, and eventually that feeling extended itself across the entertainment industry. For moviemakers, musicians, writers and eventually politicians, an appearance on “The Tonight Show” became such a marketing necessity it was treated as an honor.
While this cemented the show as a ratings leader, it also made the guy behind the desk seem more monarch as host; even the ever-amiable Leno granted an audience more than sat down for a chat.
Fallon may have the desk, but it seems more like a place for him to park his Chinese food or write his Thank You notes than a symbol of authority. Sweetly enthusiastic enough to overcome even an annoying reliance on first-person plural — every guest is “our favorite” whom “we just love” — Fallon is much closer to his pre-hosting days than Leno or Letterman.
Indeed, many of his early guests, including Tina Fey, Cameron Diaz, Adam Sandler and Demi Lovato, are actual friends and former colleagues. Lovato gave him a homemade BFF sweatshirt; Diaz “pranked” Fallon’s infant daughter Winnie and brought a photo. It’s hard to imagine David Letterman even having a BFF or Leno being privately pranked by anyone.
And it isn’t just age. Unlike, say, Conan O’Brien or even Jimmy Kimmel, Fallon’s shtick is his everyman quality. He is the Tom Hanks of hosting, able to project endearing uncertainty even as he clearly runs the show.
As both a recently married guy and a new father, Fallon straddles the thirty / forty-something demo. His famous boyishness, musical inclinations and facility with social media resonate with a younger generation. All of which he knows and plays up to his advantage. Who doesn’t like a good photo-bombing set?
His “Tonight Show,” like his “Late Night,” is also much more of an ensemble gig than his predecessors. After his opener, Fallon engages in a comedic conversation with his announcer, Steve Higgins, that’s often longer (and funnier) than the monologue.
As with “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” his studio band, the Roots, has its own set of sketches (including the hilariously dramatic readings of “The Bachelor”) and even the audience is encouraged to participate through various hashtags — #howIgotdumped — which Fallon often then reads on the show.
Concerned over declining viewership and an aging demographic, NBC clearly hoped that Fallon would make “The Tonight Show” a habit among a new generation. Instead he’s just gone and made “The Tonight Show” fun. #greatidea.