“There’s been three hosts of Late Night: David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and me. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Dave and Conan, it’s that hosting this show is a one-way ticket to not hosting The Tonight Show.”
When it was announced that Jimmy Fallon would take over the Tonight Show, there was much rejoicing among TV aficionados, myself included. Even Conan O’Brien offered his congratulations to Fallon. When he announced that the show would be more or less the same as his tenure on Late Night, I was more than satisfied. While the first episodes are a notoriously bad indicator of how a talk show will turn out, the first week – from February 17th to the 21st – has turned out pretty promising results.
Both NBC and Fallon have gone to great lengths to make sure he approaches this correctly – especially after what happened with Conan. Indeed, Fallon has two distinct advantages as Tonight host over Conan – Fallon has better lead-in programming (actual programming, not The Jay Leno Show) and, more importantly, wider appeal. Conan was more cerebral and absurd, and the new viewership wasn’t eased into such a new style. Indeed, an unnamed network executive stated that “This isn’t Conan 2.0” and that Fallon has the appeal needed for Tonight.
It’s clear Fallon and his producers are students of history. Fallon’s first act as host of Tonight was to introduce himself and his crew to his new audience.
It’s hard to watch this and not be won over by him.
Even when you strip away the writing, this is pure Fallon. Part of his charm is his genuineness – while it’s clear that most other late night hosts are putting on some kind of facade, Fallon comes across as authentic. You might want to see Letterman or Kimmel perform, but Fallon is the kind of guy you’d like to invite over to dinner. Fallon has a certain everyman appeal – while far from generic looking, he’s doesn’t have any stand-out features. No giant jaw, distinct hair color, or gap toothed grin. Just a young looking guy in a nice suit, looking like he’s attending his First Communion.
Some newer viewers have criticized Fallon for his ostensibly weak interviewer skills, but this is again part of his persona – Fallon doesn’t so much interview his guests as he does converse with them. Guests aren’t people who come by just to promote something, they’re friends invited into Fallon’s home – and being a good host, he wants everyone to have fun. It’s also easy to forget that most talk show interviews, to an extent, are planned out – they may not have a script, but both the host and the guest have an idea of what will be discussed beforehand.
Fallon has stressed that Tonight will be exactly the same show as Late Night in terms of content, and so far he’s kept that promise. Every episode featured at least one recurring segment carried over from Late Night – including Superlatives, Pros & Cons, the Ragtime Gals, and Thank You Notes. Hashtags was planned but was omitted without notice – likely due to Michelle Obama’s involvement in the Ew! sketch. Each of these sketches was just as effective on Tonight as they were on Late Night.
Even though the content hasn’t changed, the presentation has been notably altered – a more prestigious time slot necessitates a more prestigious looking set. Late Night‘s urban grungy set has become clean and traditional. An original theme song has also been composed, replacing the variation of “Here I Come” used since 2009. (I miss this part in particular – “Here I Come” was more effective at getting the crowd and viewers amped up for the show.) The Roots are no longer piled into a fire escape shaped stage – they are now in a more traditional talk show stage.
The only outright disappointment is the lack of a Band Bench. The Band Bench was an area where fans (and “randomly” grabbed audience members) of the musical act playing that night sat, located directly behind and to the sides of the band. I was selected to be on the Band Bench once behind the Avett Brothers & Chris Cornell, and it was a fun experience. (No, I am not that visible on the broadcast.) I don’t understand why it had to be cut, and if anyone wants to join me in a #bringbackthebandbench campaign, I’m game.
Much to-do has been made about Tonight coming back to New York, and they’ve spent a good amount of time emphasizing it. The first musical guest – U2 – performed on the roof of 30 Rock, overlooking the NYC skyline. The set behind Fallon’s desk is, in the words of Jerry Seinfeld, a rich kid chess set of NYC model buildings. Fallon’s hundred-dollar-bet bit featured a number of New York icons stopping by – Rudy Giuliani, Tina Fey, Robert De Niro, Stephen Colbert, and Joan Rivers’s first appearance on Tonight since her ban under Johnny Carson. Perhaps the most prestigious change is his opening titles – directed by Spike Lee, perhaps the definitive New Yorker of the past few decades. When people turn on Fallon for the foreseeable future, they will be greeted with a Spike Lee joint.
The part that might take the most getting used to for new audiences is having the best content post-monologue. It’s an old saw that people often tune into talk shows “just for the monologue before bed.” As I noted in my earlier piece about Fallon, he tends to keep his monologue short. It’s difficult to maintain any kind of consistency with a five-night-per-week writing schedule, but his monologues are the least consistent and least compelling part of his act. His monologue on Tuesday was particularly weak, but got stronger each day until he was on his game again Friday. It’s possible it was nerves for the first day or two – confidence is the key to this kind of comedy – but Fallon and his writers are going to have to step up their game a bit. His best material is often immediately after the monologue or after the first commercial break. The new audience is just going to have to warm up to that fact.
While Fallon had a stream of excellent guests to boost his first week – including Will Smith, Jerry Seinfeld, and Michelle Obama – his biggest success was Justin Timberlake. Whenever Timberlake and Fallon team up, something amazing happens. They have a long history together and have the best host-guest chemistry on late night TV, period.
With all due respect to the rest of Hollywood, Timberlake could be a guest on Fallon every week and I’d be perfectly fine with that.
It’s worth noting that Fallon is walking a fine line right now – he needs to keep his original 18-49 year-old viewers watching while convincing a new viewership more familiar with Leno to stay. Fallon had broad appeal even at 12:35, but he was brought to 11:35 in part to get a wider appeal. He needs to avoid taking too many risks while still staying true to what made him a success host.
Perhaps the biggest risk he took was having Kristin Wiig come on as Harry Styles. While the bit was charming and guaranteed to go viral, the reference likely went over the heads of Leno’s old crowd watching the show live. Fallon needs to be careful about these segments, at least for the first few weeks or months – he was brought in to get ratings, not just YouTube hits.
Even so, while ratings for the first week are not the best indicator of long term success on TV, his numbers so far have been even better than expected. Even when that number regresses to regular viewership levels, it will still likely be high.
That said, the Internet has been key to Fallon’s success, and so far he’s continuing right where he left off in that department. Almost every segment Fallon has done in the first week has gone viral. By the end of his first week, most major sketches he did received several million YouTube views apiece. odds are you’ve seen Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing and/or Brian Williams performing “Rapper’s Delight” in your Facebook or tumblr feeds at some point this week. This has always been one of Fallon’s greatest strengths – his show is Internet literate, and Fallon has produced more viral hits than almost every other talk show combined. The much anticipated “History of Rap 5” alone cracked two million views within two days.
That said, some of his best bits still haven’t cracked the million hit mark on YouTube. As of now, those include his Olympic Superlatives, Justin Timberlake’s apology to Buffalo, and his bit with young inventors called Fallonventions:
My favorite part is the dog, who has a “this might as well happen” expression on his face the entire time.
Even, the fact that this haven’t gone as viral might be a good sign in the big picture – it shows that his show has a depth to it that goes beyond sharing the goofy bits on your Facebook page. It’s a complete show with a complete hour of entertainment. With a little tightening and maybe a little less risk taking – at least until the new audience gets comfortable – we could all be in for a solid twenty year run of the Tonight Show.
Provided Jay doesn’t get bored and stage a coup, of course.
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon can be seen at 11:35PM every weekday on NBC.