Jimmy Fal­lon: Is the US talk-show host tele­vi­sion’s mes­siah?

Jimmy Fal­lon, the newly anointed king of US late-night TV, is funny, youth­ful and an in­ter­net sen­sa­tion. What’s more he’s nice. Michael Bodey dis­cov­ers why the 39-year-old is be­ing her­alded as the great hope for broad­cast tele­vi­sion, and why Aus­tralian pr

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‘T WENTY years ago, ev­ery­one had to be too cool for school and sneer at ev­ery­thing,” Bri­tish co­me­dian Steve Coogan noted re­cently. “Right now, the most avant-garde thing you can do is to be sin­cere.”

That makes Jimmy Fal­lon an avant-garde artist in the high­est pro­file tele­vi­sion gig a co­me­dian can at­tain. The for­mer Satur­day Night

Live co­me­dian has jumped out from be­hind his for­mer peers Will Fer­rell, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler into the top job on Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion: host of The Tonight Show.

Fal­lon is not TV’s mes­siah al­though you’d be for­given for think­ing the fate of net­work tele­vi­sion is rest­ing on his sharp shoul­ders, such is the hope placed on him in the US and over­seas.

His as­cen­sion into a role that is an in­sti­tu­tion is change enough.

As Fal­lon says when we meet at New York’s famed 30 Rock­e­feller Plaza, he was re­minded more people had walked on the moon than hosted NBC’s vaunted late-night talk show.

“And now I’ve done both,” he jokes. His pre­de­ces­sor, Jay Leno, held the chair for 22 years fol­low­ing hosts Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson (a 30-year vet­eran) and, briefly, Co­nan O’Brien.

“This is a priv­i­lege. I can’t re­ally pay at­ten­tion to that [legacy] stuff so much be­cause I don’t want to get a big head but you watch the com­mer­cials for this big new show and I get goose bumps be­cause these guys are leg­ends in my head.”

Walk­ing into the Rock­e­feller is in­tim­i­dat­ing enough. The aus­tere lines of Ray­mond Hood’s ground­break­ing sky­scraper meet a bronze statue of At­las at street level and an im­pos­ing frieze de­not­ing ‘Wis­dom”. In­side, taste­ful wooden pan­elling and dark al­coves sug­gest a sense of seren­ity, yet up­stairs are the stu­dios that house Satur­day Night Live, The To­day Show, NBC Nightly News and The Tonight Show. “I grew up watch­ing Johnny Carson and in no way would I put my­self in his cat­e­gory. But to be on the same list as these guys … this is real, this is so ex­cit­ing, and it doesn’t get much big­ger for a co­me­dian than The Tonight Show.”

Fal­lon’s move rep­re­sents a ma­jor gen­er­a­tional change for tele­vi­sion. For 60 years, The

Tonight Show has been a sta­ple of Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion, a place where au­di­ences could wind down each night and be en­ter­tained as the best and bright­est sat down on a couch to the host’s right. De­spite the love of his peers, David Let­ter­man’s Late Show on CBS only oc­ca­sion­ally beat Leno’s Tonight Show; and ABC’s ris­ing star Jimmy Kim­mel has started from scratch.

But to­day, au­di­ences are just as likely to wind down with a com­puter tablet in their bed, and rat­ings show younger au­di­ences are shun­ning free-to-air tele­vi­sion.

The 39-year-old Fal­lon em­bod­ies the in­dus­try-wide hope those au­di­ences will re­turn. He con­nects to his guests and his gen­er­a­tion. His five-year stint warm­ing up as host of Late Night show­cased a talent au fait with new tech­nol­ogy and brought the best out of his guests.


Just as im­por­tant is Fal­lon’s ap­peal be­yond the tele­vi­sion screen. He has used so­cial me­dia with great alacrity. His com­edy sketches and per­for­mances reg­u­larly find on­line au­di­ences in the mil­lions that dwarf the au­di­ence of his show.

His large sec­ondary au­di­ence on­line gen­er­ated 37 mil­lion YouTube views in his first week on The Tonight Show alone, and his pre­vi­ous Late Show #Hash­tag sketch with Justin Tim­ber­lake up to 22 mil­lion views. In­ter­est­ingly, NBC has cho­sen to share them on YouTube free of com­mer­cials (and not geo-blocked) to build Fal­lon’s brand.

“NBC does see Fal­lon as the next gen­er­a­tion talent al­though they also be­lieve he’s a tra­di­tional per­former in that he’s a broad

rang­ing talent,” says Bill Carter, The New

York Times me­dia writer and au­thor of a num­ber of books about Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion,

in­clud­ing The Late Shift and Des­per­ate Net


“He sings, does im­pres­sions, he does sketch com­edy. [ SNL founder] Lorne Michaels even told me — openly — he com­pares Fal­lon and Tim­ber­lake to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.

“He has that throw­back ap­peal, and they like that be­cause they want the show to be as broad as pos­si­ble. Whether he can turn around TV is be­yond any­one’s ex­pec­ta­tions though.”

Fal­lon is a rare talent; his im­pres­sions are im­pres­sive and his mu­si­cal par­o­dies verge on ge­nius. Neil Young re­cently noted Fal­lon does a bet­ter Neil Young than he does.

But will Fal­lon’s suc­cess in­flu­ence tele­vi­sion else­where?

Seven pro­gram­mer An­gus Ross is open­minded about an Aus­tralian talk show al­though other net­works are less in­ter­ested. “It’s al­ways an op­por­tu­nity given that it would be lo­cal and live,” he says. “It comes down to who can host the bloody thing.”

Cer­tainly di­rec­tor Jon Olb, who was at the helm of Tonight Live with Steve Vizard and most re­cently Adam Hills in Gor­don Street

Tonight, be­lieves there is a host, al­though our mar­ket size lim­its a talk show’s po­ten­tial.

“But I’m hop­ing to change that, ac­tu­ally,” he says, re­veal­ing he is in ne­go­ti­a­tions with talent to pro­duce “ei­ther a tonight show or a tonight show for the in­ter­net” later this year.

The tele­vi­sion in­dus­try is en­thused by Fal­lon’s start. Al­ready, it ap­pears Fal­lon’s vim and sin­cer­ity has re­ju­ve­nated the talk show genre af­ter decades of old-men-in­suits snark­ing with in­creas­ingly pre­dictable mono­logues at the top of each show.

Af­ter years of snip­ing and pol­i­tick­ing, first as Leno out­ma­noeu­vred Let­ter­man to re­place Carson, then as Leno white-an­ted his re­place­ment O’Brien, Fal­lon’s ap­point­ment may have been seen as a com­pro­mise.

He’s the nice guy ev­ery­one loves and he didn’t de­clare a side as O’Brien and Leno fought and Let­ter­man and Kim­mel laughed from the side­lines.

Fal­lon chuck­les when I note his smooth

tran­si­tion is in stark con­trast to the sim­mer­ing ten­sion since Carson left in 1992.

“Well, it’s to­tally dif­fer­ent than what hap­pened with Co­nan and Jay,” he says of his in­duc­tion. “Gen­er­a­tionally Jay Leno and I are to­tally dif­fer­ent, whereas Co­nan and Jay weren’t sim­i­lar in age but they weren’t that far away.”

The 39-year-old Fal­lon could be 63-year-old Leno’s son. “At this point it’s a ma­jor dif­fer­ence, so it’s an ac­tual change,” Fal­lon says. “I think it’s clear to the pub­lic why they would make this change. It’s just a gen­er­a­tional change.”

Fal­lon has been suit­ably re­spect­ful dur­ing the tran­si­tion and Leno has been san­guine.

“I owe a lot to that guy be­cause he was my lead-in for a long time and I watched him and stud­ied his stuff and he’s been noth­ing but great to me. He han­dled the tran­si­tion like a gen­tle­man, like I knew he would,” Fal­lon says.

“It wasn’t a force out, it was more a choice and he was asked and I was asked and it was ‘we were all treated like adults in the room’. No shady deals, no se­cret stuff hap­pen­ing. We were hon­est with each other from the get go, which is why it turned out great.”

Leno may not be so ac­com­mo­dat­ing now. Fal­lon’s open­ing week as The Tonight Show host recorded the best rat­ings for the pro­gram since Carson’s fi­nal week in 1992 as as­sess­ments of Leno’s 22-year run cut. One critic noted Leno’s only legacy was his longevity.

And Fal­lon re­sus­ci­tated The Tonight Show’s place in pop cul­ture. Dur­ing Fal­lon’s first night in the chair, for the pur­poses of one brief gag, a line-up of stars in­clud­ing Robert De Niro, Lady Gaga, Kim Kar­dashian, Joan Rivers, Mike Tyson, Lind­say Lo­han, Sarah Jes­sica Parker, Rudy Gi­u­liani and Stephen Col­bert walked on stage briefly to give Fal­lon $US100. Fal­lon had joked about a buddy who once bet him $100 he would never host The Tonight Show.

Later in the week Jerry Se­in­feld was the first stand-up per­former and Michelle Obama per­formed a sketch with Will Fer­rell. And through it all, Fal­lon bounced around with enthusiasm.

He con­cedes “it’s re­ally weird to see yourself there” among the megas­tars.

“But even if it wasn’t me, I would be ex­cited [about the new host of The Tonight Show] be­cause I’m a fan of tele­vi­sion and a fan of pop cul­ture. I re­ally am, I’m ob­sessed by it.”

It shows in his in­ter­ac­tions with guests. “I want to have fun, I want to en­ter­tain,” he says. And it is as sim­ple as that. Fal­lon may not be as com­fort­able a stand-up as Let­ter­man or Leno but his range is far broader. He has held his own on a gui­tar next to Bruce Spring­steen, in raps next to Justin Tim­ber­lake, dancing next to Smith and in cha­rades next to Bradley Cooper. Con­se­quently, stars are go­ing the ex­tra yard for him. Fal­lon and ABC talk host Kim­mel have a closer re­la­tion­ship to mod­ern Hol­ly­wood than their stiffer pre­de­ces­sors.

“Yeah I do feel like, I’ve had five years to kind of fig­ure out what I’m do­ing,” Fal­lon says be­fore quickly not­ing he needs more time and “in no way would I say I’m great at my job. I’m good at my job. Hope­fully I’ll get the hang of it one day.

“I feel like the guests that come on my show are my age or younger re­ally. The older guys can still do Let­ter­man — they’re wel­come to do my show — but you’ve got to know go­ing in, the Tom Hankses and Ju­lia Robert­ses of the world still love Dave and they’ll stick with him.”

The new Hol­ly­wood will work with Fal­lon, he adds, “be­cause they think: ‘I know that guy and he speaks to me.’ It goes back to be­ing true to yourself and not cater­ing to a new young, hip gen­er­a­tion and chang­ing the game. Just be hon­est. Do you like com­puter games or not? Do you have an iPhone?”

“Hon­estly, it’s funny to watch Dave and Jay deal with tech­nol­ogy be­cause they have no idea,” Fal­lon continues. “There’s no way they would have a video game on their show and know what they were do­ing. It’s just not part of their gen­er­a­tion. But it is hap­pen­ing, you can’t ig­nore it and it’s part of our gen­er­a­tion.”

Fal­lon says he still plays video games. (Though he has a six-month-old baby; he prob­a­bly has 18 months left of videogam­ing.) Not that gam­ing is a cen­tral part of The Tonight

Show. He is like­lier to use par­lour games to pull the best from his guests.

In do­ing so, Fal­lon sug­gests he is a show­biz throw­back. He’s taken the talk show away from the stilted con­ver­sa­tion on the couch and back on to the shiny floor, do­ing a three-legged pants dance with Cameron Diaz or a lip-sync bat­tle with Paul Rudd (that’s par­tic­u­larly worth search­ing for on YouTube).

Fal­lon throws him­self into ev­ery game with the aban­don of a show­biz trooper and the enthusiasm of a fan.

“The one knock you see about Fal­lon now is he’s en­thused about ev­ery­body,” says Carter. “That has played fine but I think as the host of

The Tonight Show, which is a tra­di­tional 60year-old fran­chise, you will oc­ca­sion­ally run into real life.”

Carson too be­gan as a boy­ish and charm­ing host, Carter notes, but he ma­tured and re­al­ity hit. He had to do jokes about the Viet­nam War. And New York-based Let­ter­man dealt soberly with 9/11.

The ques­tion now is whether Fal­lon too will ma­ture and meet re­al­ity as Amer­ica’s late-night spokesman. “Jimmy doesn’t want to deal with it now — he told me that — but it’s un­avoid­able,” Carter says.

At the mo­ment, Fal­lon is de­liv­er­ing un­abashed en­ter­tain­ment and relishing it. That’s no small achieve­ment in it­self, for ex­am­ple strum­ming a gui­tar while dressed as Born in the

USA Bruce Spring­steen — next to a sim­i­larly at­tired Spring­steen. Fal­lon’s great­est as­set right now is pos­sess­ing the zeal of a pop cul­tural ev­ery­man liv­ing a dream.

“Com­pletely, I’m to­tally the fan, not used to it at all,” he says. “I’m to­tally ner­vous but what I keep telling my brain as it’s hap­pen­ing: don’t laugh, don’t mess up, don’t make a mis­take, get this bit over with.”

Fal­lon knows the sketches with the stars are funny be­cause they’ve been honed and re­hearsed. “So just get it done and then you can breathe and laugh later,” he says.

“Some­times it takes me weeks or months to see the thing be­cause we do so much con­tent. The great thing about the show is you’ve got to do an­other show to­mor­row. So you can’t pat each other on the back ev­ery night and say: ‘Hey man, that was so good, let’s have a beer!’

“Nope, it doesn’t work like that, you’ve got to wake up to­mor­row, you’ve got a show to do.”

For a while, he didn’t have any shows to do. Af­ter de­part­ing Satur­day Night Live in 2004, Fal­lon’s at­tempt to make it in movies stalled. The fail­ure of films in­clud­ing Taxi, Fever Pitch and Doo­gal wasn’t his fault but they tarred him un­til Michaels pulled him out of his lost years in LA in the late 2000s, which Fal­lon ad­mits in­cluded a stint on the bot­tle. Those days must seem some time ago now? “Yeah but you never for­get it,” Fal­lon says, sigh­ing. “You’ve got to get back up brush the dirt off your shoul­ders.

“I know what it’s like to be down and out and I know what it’s like to be on top, so I’ve got a mix of both, but I’ll never for­get those down and out days, which makes me ap­pre­ci­ate the job I have now.

“It could all go away to­mor­row, I know that, and I gen­uinely ap­pre­ci­ate and cher­ish ev­ery mo­ment now,” he adds.

“I’m gen­uinely hav­ing fun on my show. Gen­uinely. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t hav­ing fun. I’m not do­ing this for money — al­though the money is fan­tas­tic — I do it be­cause I like to do some­thing and I want to do some­thing good



and some­thing that has mean­ing and that can live for a lit­tle while.”

That he is now in such a plum host­ing role, seem­ingly for life if he wants it, says much about his re­silience, talent and per­son­able na­ture.

His en­try into the late-night game five years ago sug­gested he might not get a sec­ond show. He was a sur­prise choice to take NBC’s Late Night slot, va­cated by O’Brien as he moved to

The Tonight Show, and Fal­lon’s first weeks in 2009 were rough. He was twitchy, un­sure of him­self and not talk show host ma­te­rial.

“Well it wasn’t that bad,” he protests. “It could have been much worse and I’ve seen worse. I can’t even stomach to watch the orig­i­nal shows. I don’t want to even tor­ture my­self. But it’s like any job, any­where, wher­ever you work; you have to fig­ure out what you’re do­ing be­fore you know what you’re do­ing.”

He con­cedes he was ner­vous and “a lit­tle sweaty”. “And now five years later, I’ve grown up, I have a baby now and I’m kind of com­fort­able in my own skin and com­fort­able with in­ter­views, I let them flow and people talk and ex­press them­selves and I’m so much bet­ter at that than I was five years ago.” Un­doubt­edly. Al­ready he has made The To

night Show his own and, in the process, a re­turn to old-fash­ioned TV va­ri­ety may be on. Michaels is de­vel­op­ing a prime-time va­ri­ety show to be hosted by Maya Ru­dolph, and the con­tin­ued suc­cess of splashy talent con­tests such as The

Voice, The X Fac­tor and Got Talent sug­gest TV au­di­ences merely want fun.

In Aus­tralia, that won’t nec­es­sar­ily mean a late-night talk show though. Nine’s pro­duc­tion head Andrew Back­well notes the eco­nom­ics here mean lo­cal spend­ing gets a bet­ter re­turn on in­vest­ment at 7.30pm or 8.30pm.

Then there’s Aus­tralia’s for­lorn ex­pec­ta­tion we will find an­other Gra­ham Kennedy. Per­haps we need a Jimmy Fal­lon.

Cer­tainly broad­cast tele­vi­sion is happy to have him as it con­fronts an un­cer­tain fu­ture. And Fal­lon be­lieves in broad­cast tele­vi­sion.

“I be­lieve in it, like I be­lieve in news­pa­pers and film and mag­a­zines,” he says. “They’ll all be around for as long as you want, as long as you rein­vent it and keep it fresh. If it gets stale, it’ll go away. If you keep rein­vent­ing it and keep­ing it fresh, it’ll be around for as long as you want it to be around.”

The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fal­lon airs at 11pm week­nights on the Com­edy Chan­nel.

Jimmy Fal­lon, right; top, from left, with first lady Michelle Obama; with U2; tak­ing part in the Chicago Po­lar Plunge last week; ap­pear­ing with Stephen Col­bert on his The

Tonight Show de­but

in Fe­bru­ary

Steve Vizard and Jennifer Keyte on 1990s Aus­tralian talk show Tonight Live; and, more re­cently, Adam Hills hosts In Gor­don St Tonight

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