“You really going to do this?” Jerry Seinfeld asked Jimmy Fallon at a recent charity event.
“What do you mean?” Fallon replied. NBC had just announced that the 39-year-old would succeed Jay Leno, who will — and he really means it this time — leave “The Tonight Show” in February 2014.
“You realize there’s no end to this job,” Seinfeld explained. “You’ll just do this ‘til you die. It’s the pope job.”
“The pope job.” Fallon laughed, but Seinfeld kept going.
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“Have you seen the pope?” the veteran comic asked of then-Pope Benedict XVI. “He can’t even lift his head up. He’s mumbling the prayers. No one even knows if he is saying prayers. That’s what this is. This is what you want?”
It is — which is how Fallon ended up earlier this month on a whirlwind trip to 25 cities, including Seattle. He recorded promos at KING 5 television (the NBC affiliate), ate at Dick’s Burgers, performed for a packed house at the Paramount Theater and did a spot-on impression of Jack Nicholson talking about the prize in a box of Cracker Jack.
And he spoke with both boyish wonder and professional ease about his new job — as just the sixth host of “The Tonight Show.”
“Someone was saying that more people have walked on the moon than hosted ‘The Tonight Show,’ ” Fallon told me. “Me, I’ve done both, so that’s really good.”
It’s all just sinking in — this job that most people think is his dream job, but never was.
“There’s no way it could be a dream job because I wouldn’t even dream,” Fallon said. “When I was a kid, you don’t think that Johnny Carson is a job you could have.”
He didn’t even know what a job was when he was a kid. He just wanted to be a baseball player. Then when he found out what a job was, he wanted to work at IBM, “Because that’s what my dad was. He was a technical writer and he fixed computers.”
So Fallon, who was born in Brooklyn, grew up in Saugerties, N.Y., attended The College of Saint Rose in Albany and became a computer-science major. But his grades were bad, so he switched to communications and after graduation moved to Los Angeles to work as a stand-up comedian.
He joined The Groundlings comedy troupe and got small parts in film and television before joining “Saturday Night Live” in 1998.
There, he and then-writer Tina Fey discovered their chemistry. She wrote for him before becoming head writer and later joined him on camera to co-anchor “Weekend Update.”
Fallon left “SNL” in 2004, but on his way out, was tapped by producer Lorne Michaels to take over the 12:37 a.m. spot from Conan O’Brien, who had just been tapped to replace Leno five years from then.
“Lorne said, ‘Look, I don’t know if you’re interested in hosting a talk show …’ and I said, ‘I don’t think so. I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ And Tina Fey was in the office and she said, ‘You could totally do that. You’re Irish, charming, you talk to everybody all the time. It will be good.’ ”
Fallon wasn’t sure. He wanted to do movies.
“Cut to, my movie’s not working and Lorne calls me up five years later and says, ‘Hey remember, the talk show thing? You still into it?’ ”
NBC didn’t want him at first. They had a list of other people (“I don’t know who was on the list; I don’t remember”) and Fallon was going to meetings, “almost begging” for the job.
“They were like, ‘Well, it’s very important and it’s a really hard job and it’s hard work’ and I said, ‘I know, I love hard work. I love to work hard.’ ”
Michaels made the decision for everyone, saying that if NBC didn’t want Fallon for 12:37, he wasn’t going to produce the show.
Friends offered him all kinds of advice. Stephen Colbert told him something that Conan O’Brien had been told by Johnny Carson: “In this job, you’ll use everything you ever learned in life.”
“And boy, oh boy is that true,” Fallon said.
Everything he’s ever done — even his college impression of “Cheers” character Cliff Claven — he’s done on “Late Night.” He sings, he raps, he does spoofs.
“But I wish Steve Allen were still alive so he could see what we were doing with his baby, with ‘The Tonight Show,’ ” Fallon said. “Because I think he’d be psyched. He’d be like, ‘That’s what I set out to do.’ He was doing what we plan on doing: being silly, being absurd and just having fun. He was the first guy to lay in the giant bowl and pretend he was a banana split and have ice cream and chocolate syrup poured on him. Way before Letterman. He made it nuts to do that on TV.”
Jack Paar made it more of a talk show. Johnny Carson did sketches and sang. Every host, Fallon said, put his mark on it.
And while Leno and O’Brien scrapped over the show’s debacle of 2010 — when Leno stepped down and then took the franchise back from O’Brien — Fallon remains neutral.
“I didn’t have a dog in the fight,” he said. “Conan was the first talk show I had ever been on, but Jay had always been good to me. I didn’t want to choose a side, and I didn’t have to, because all I had to do was keep doing my job, which was at 12:37, which I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for Conan O’Brien, which he wouldn’t have had if there was no David Letterman.”
None of them are his role models. “Johnny Carson is the guy you look up to. Because there are so many moments where he just made you laugh, he made you cry. The guy just had something.”
Fallon is well aware of the legacy he’s been handed.
“It’s an honor,” he said. “I don’t want to let anyone down. I want to make everyone proud. I wish people around would say, ‘Yeah, this kid is doing it. He’s doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing.’”
Many things he now does on “Late Night” will follow him to “The Tonight Show”: The Roots, the singing, the “Thank You Notes” and the regular visits from good friend Justin Timberlake.
Anyone he’s itching to have as a guest?
“The queen would be fun,” Fallon said. “I don’t know what we could do together — play Wii?”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org.