I want to give you the bad news first. This program is going to go on forever.
~ Steve Allen, on the first episode of Tonight, September 27, 1954
It’s a good time to be Jimmy Fallon. His wife gave birth to their first child this Tuesday, Late Night is up for a few Emmys, and at the conclusion of the Winter Olympics he will be moving up a timeslot as the sixth full time host of The Tonight Show. Here’s some reasons to look forward to it.
1) He’s young
When Jimmy Fallon takes over The Tonight Show, he will 39. To keep that in perspective, Conan was 46 when he started (and ended) on Tonight, Leno (for the first time) was 42, and Carson was 36.
Fallon’s age has two major benefits:
a) He’ll connect better with a younger viewership, which will rope in more viewers long term.
b) Based on the runs of past hosts, he could host Tonight for the next ten or twenty years.
2) The best house band in late night history.
Fallon’s house band is The Roots. This is the only instance I can recall of an established band becoming a late night house band, instead of creating a house band for a show. They’re a hard-working band with ten albums and four Grammys under their belt, and they can play anything.
3) He may be the most multi-talented host ever (and he isn’t afraid to show it)
Carson played drums, but rarely if ever played publicly. Conan plays guitar, but only brings it out for special occasions. Fallon, on the other hand, brings his guitar out all the time and steps it up a notch:
Besides being a stand-up comedian, Fallon can sing, act, and do a wide variety of impressions. Often he’ll demonstrate all these skills at the same time. Until Late Night, most people only knew of Fallon’s abilities through his award show hosting stints, but now his musical impression sketches have become his show’s signature. He’s best known for his Neil Young impressions or “Tebowie,” but to best illustrate I present you with this under-appreciated gem: Jimmy Fallon IS Jim Morrison of The Doors singing the Reading Rainbow theme.
This is about as close to perfection as one can manage. The set looks like a 60s television show, the costuming is spot-on, and that’s about as close to Jim Morrison that you’ll hear or see anywhere. (In other words: sorry, Oliver Stone’s The Doors movie. You tried… I think.)
4) His learning curve is phenomenal
This is best demonstrated through comparison.
When an unknown Conan first took over Late Night, his reviews were almost uniformly negative. Late Night was in constant danger of being cancelled. Three years later, that all changed, and the same writers who were giving him negative reviews at the start began praising him. In 1996, three years after its rocky debut, the show was nominated for a writing Emmy and went on to get annual nominations until his run on the show ended. Between 2003 and 2007 (inclusive) the show was nominated for Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy Series every year.
Compare that to Fallon. There was backlash before Fallon even stepped on stage by many viewers and critics, most of whom disliked him because of his mediocre movie career (which is actually common among television hosts) and his tendency to laugh during sketches on SNL. His first few shows were considered disappointments. Only a year later, the same blogs and websites that were criticizing Fallon started posting clips from his show. I believe that it was his Neil Young impression that pushed him over the top – many people linked to them not even knowing it was Fallon. Now, websites are linking to Fallon as much as they are to Conan on TBS, if not more.
A mere two years after starting, the show was nominated for the “Variety Music or Comedy” Emmy. It was nominated again this year. It also had a nomination for writing. Consider the fact that the “Variety Music or Comedy” Emmy category is far more competitive than when Conan started at Late Night. Back then, the nominees were a handful of fellow late night network shows and the occasional primetime special. Now competition includes cable shows like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Real Time with Bill Maher.
The show has also has produced two books of his “Thank You Notes” and a Grammy-winning album.
Fallon overcame the same obstacles as Conan, and did so in half the time. All of which leads me to my next, and probably most important, point…
5) He’s made the show his own
This is the real test for a late night host of any time slot – can they make their late night program their own? The time slots are tough, and if you don’t stand out, you’ll wash up. During Carson’s tenure as The Tonight Show host, a litany of people – ranging from Joan Rivers to Pat Sajak – tried to compete with him. None lasted. This was in part due to the fact that their shows attempted to copy Carson – an impossible feat. Letterman and Conan succeeded because they changed the show to suit their own talents and style.
Fallon figured that out within about a year. He (and his staff) realized he was a better at sketch comedy than monologues, so his monologues only last about six minutes. (Compare to Conan, the best monologuer on late night TV right now, who usually goes on for about ten minutes.) Instead, he’s turned the show into a mini-SNL, full of sketches and music. Instead of just talking about popular TV shows, he makes full-on episodic parodies of them. I could provide dozens of examples, but I don’t think I could do much better than “Game of Desks:”
Plus he does things like this: http://www.hulu.com/watch/76560
(For the record, I will never fully forgive Tiffani Thiessen for screwing up the Saved By The Bell reunion.)
So here’s to you, Jimmy Fallon. Long may you reign, because Lord knows NBC doesn’t need a late night conflict threequel.