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
‘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.
NEIL YOUNG RECENTLY NOTED FALLON DOES A BETTER NEIL YOUNG THAN HE DOES
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
I’VE GROWN UP, I HAVE A BABY NOW AND I’M KIND OF COMFORTABLE IN MY OWN SKIN AND COMFORTABLE WITH INTERVIEWS
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
Steve Vizard and Jennifer Keyte on 1990s Australian talk show Tonight Live; and, more recently, Adam Hills hosts In Gordon St Tonight