“Welcome to ‘The Tonight Show.’ I’m Jimmy Fallon and I’ll be your host, for now.”
With those words the next era of late-night television’s most venerable franchise was launched at the stroke of midnight. Jimmy Fallon, still not yet 40 years old and equally beloved by both Williamsburg hipsters and Compton gangstas, has arrived (although he never really left, not even the building). Fallon has come to reclaim The Tonight Show in the name of both New York City and the coveted 18-34 demographic.
Returning to its ancestral birthplace, Manhattan, after a 44-year exile in the wilderness of Burbank, Calif., Fallon’s Tonight Show debut teemed with manic energy and humanity, like the subway platform at Times Square at 6 p.m. There was grandeur: U2 performed from atop 30 Rockefeller Center, 70 stories above terra firma, as the sun set over the city of blinding lights behind them.
There was also inspiration. As Fallon took his seat behind the desk for the first time, he mentioned that the friend who said he’d never host the Tonight Show now owed him $100. Cue a parade of luminaries who each, one by one, walked out from behind the ocean-blue curtain to ruefully slap a $100 bill on Fallon’s desk. For posterity’s sake, the caravan went: Robert DeNiro, Tina Fey, Joe Namath, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, Mariah Carey, a five-months pregnant-looking Tracy Morgan, Joan Rivers, Kim Kardashian, Seth Rogen, Lindsay Lohan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mike Tyson, Lady Gaga and, lastly, toting not a Benjamin but instead a bucket of pennies, Stephen Colbert, who greeted his newest timeslot adversary with, “Welcome to 11:30, bitch!”
During his opening monologue Fallon introduced his parents, who were seated in the audience, and noted that he is 39 years old. Indeed, Fallon’s default expression is “boyishly giddy” and the overwhelming odor that he emits is a refreshing whiff of “nice.” He is playful and benevolent and the most musically inclined late-night talk show host on TV since this show’s original host, Steve Allen.
Unlike David Letterman, who launched the program that he just departed, or Jay Leno, who just left the program that Fallon is inheriting, stand-up is not Fallon’s muse. Music is. He’d rather perform a “History of Rap” medley with good friend Justin Timberlake than he would read a Top 10 list or an unintentionally hilarious newspaper headline or, well, just about anything. Like the city to which Fallon returned Tonight, he is a repository of manic energy and that fuel served him well with his 12:35 a.m. college-aged audience on Late Night.
How Fallon adjusts to an earlier time slot and a relatively more mature audience remains to be seen. He is effortlessly likable because, as his first guest Will Smith mentioned, he genuinely seems to want to please people. But Fallon is still far too nervous an interviewer. Nerves compel Fallon to interrupt his guests or stammer. It feels at times as if you are watching a bad cell-phone connection played out face-to-face, or a nervous seventh-grade boy trying to hold a conversation with the hot girl.
Still, Fallon and his writing staff are terrific at engaging their audience, both in the studio and at home. Be it with games or contests or music, Fallon has always endeavored to make hs show the dorm room you and your friends all wanted to hang out in late at night while guzzling Michelob Lights. Again, unlike Dave or Jay, Fallon’s emphasis has always been on fun as opposed to funny.
Last night’s Tonight Show, of course, was also a personal milestone for Fallon. For a kid from Saugerties, N.Y. who has literally worked in the same building for 16 years now, Fallon has come a long way. During his monologue he broached a memory that those of us of a certain epoch can identify with, a memory of being a boy and asking his parents if he could “stay up and watch [Johnny] Carson.” Of hoping, once permission was granted, that if he remained quiet his parents might forget about him, that he could stay around long enough to see the first guest.
“If you let me stay around long enough,” Fallon said, “maybe I’ll get the hang of it.”
We will and he will.