Fallon Is the King on YouTube but Not on the Night's Talk Shows

Jimmy Fallon 3
Fallon cracks corn every night, racking up YouTube views and Facebook likes with his schtick, but the talk is cheap. Gus Ruelas/Reuters

Last week Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon assembled a quartet of actors, none of whom had to walk off the set of the new David Fincher film to be there, to appear in a skit. The following morning my Twitter feed reacted like that cabin in the Pierce Brosnan commercial, which is to say that it exploded.

Granted, the Saved by the Bell reunion was a cute idea while also inspiring the epiphany that whatever fountain Rob Lowe is drinking out of, Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Mario Lopez are slurping from the same aquifer. Still, I didn’t understand the hysteria. Is it my age? Would I have reacted similarly to a Square Pegs reunion (“That’s a totally different head”)? Is there a difference between an attention-grabbing stunt and entertainment?

If you are a fanatical Tonight Show fan, the answer to that last question is either (A) No or (B) “Get off my lawn” (which you were about to post in the Comments section below).

On February 17, Fallon, 40, will mark his first anniversary as host of NBC’s late-night institution. It has been a wildly successful rookie season for the relentlessly cheerful host, one in which he has gone Secretariat-at-the-Belmont vs. Jimmy Kimmel (ABC) and David Letterman (CBS) while also ascending a viral staircase of must-watch YouTube clips. Here’s Fallon and his ridiculously over-qualified house band, The Roots, performing “All About That Bass” with Meghan Trainor, using classroom instruments (14 million views); here’s Jimmy doing “Alphabet Aerobics” with Hogwarts alum Daniel Radcliffe (35 million views); and here’s his lip-sync battle with Emma Stone, in which she absolutely destroys “The Hook” by Blues Traveler (42 million views).

Fallon’s predecessor, Jay Leno, was often hailed as “the hardest-working man in show business” (apparently lifted the title from the late James Brown), but no one has ever worked their tush off, definitely no one has ever expended more calories, hosting a late-night show than Fallon. He sings. He dances. He raps. He plays flip cup. He does impersonations. He plays guitar. He plays drums. He literally jumps through hoops, or at least donut holes, to entertain us (although that last stunt would have been far funnier if Fallon had just made his entrance via the Randy’s Donut as opposed to setting up the bit as much as he did).

Jimmy Fallon is the most versatile talk-show host since Steve Allen. There’s just one thing this talk-show host is not very good at: talking.

Watching and listening to Fallon interview a guest is simply more painful and awkward than every conversation that ever took place between Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper. Everything a guest has ever done, including the film, TV show or album he or she is there to promote, is either “amazing” or “awesome.” Usually, both. A Fallon interview is like watching a tennis match with all aces. There are no rallies, no service returns back across the net. There is no honest to goodness badinage.

Fallon is fawning. Compared to Fallon, Arsenio Hall was Sir Laurence Olivier’s sadistic Nazi dentist asking Dustin Hoffman, “Is it safe?” in Marathon Man. At the mere suggestion of whimsy or wit by a guest, Fallon claps or convulses into laughter. Giddiness is a default mechanism. If I wanted to see someone awestruck—and dumbstruck—at the prospect of interviewing a celebrity, I’d save NBC $12 million a year and just watch old clips of The Chris Farley Show.

Last month Nicole Kidman appeared on the show and revealed that she and Fallon once went on a date—Fallon apparently had been oblivious—and I had to wonder what one-liner Dave or Johnny Carson might have countered with. Here’s Johnny (where have I heard that before?) melting the sweater off Angie Dickinson in 1981, demonstrating the fine art of flirting. And while it is unfair to compare Fallon just a few years into hosting late-night talk shows with a seasoned Carson, it’s slightly maddening (and yes, a sign of the generational gap) that the Fallon clip has been viewed more than 24 million times while the Carson clip has garnered less than 150,000 views.

It may be curmudgeonly to take a dislike to Fallon (this is a human being who actually devotes a running bit to penning “Thank You” cards), but I don’t find him funny. He is occasionally amusing, always good-natured, and again, a genuinely talented and versatile performer. Taxonomically, he should be classified not as a talk-show host but as a variety-show host. He’s closer to Sid Caesar and Carol Burnett than he is to Kimmel or Letterman.

But Fallon is hosting a talk show; social ineptness should be a serious drawback. When Kidman appeared and recounted their “date,” she recalled that Fallon mostly just mumbled and then put on a video game. Did anyone else notice the irony in that? The Australian beauty was describing most episodes of the Tonight Show.

Wayne and Garth put on a talk-show in a parent’s basement, played guitar, were socially awkward around beautiful women (“We’re not worthy!”) and possessed the emotional maturity of 13-year-olds. Fallon has completely usurped their schtick. And NBC doesn’t care because the ratings are boffo.

But shouldn’t we? For every musically inspired bit (e.g. “Ragtime Gals”), there’s an insipid installment of celebrities-play-games that Fallon’s obsequious audience laps up because, you know, whatever a celebrity does is awesome and amazing. Fallon’s demographic, or so it feels, is comprised primarily of the same dolts  that Leno used to interview for his “Jay Walking” bits.

As the Cult of Fallon grows, it matters less whether a bit is humorous or insightful than it does that everyone is blathering about it (the Kardashian Effect). Was it really funny to see Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart and Fallon engage in a lip-synch competition that lasted 13 minutes on Super Bowl Sunday night (Movie News Guide breathlessly exclaimed, “OMG! Is it hilarious or what?” Answer: what), or was it just a case of the popular kids in the back of the classroom making farting noises? In other words, is it still “hilarious or what” if three less popular people do it?

And is it not worth noting that Fallon’s lip-synch battles are just like his interviews: mouths are opening and closing but nothing is actually being said?

Last week I had the night light tuned to CBS, where Late Show host David Letterman and guest Phil McGraw (a.k.a. Dr. Phil) were partaking in some good, old-fashioned banter. “Biggest mistake I ever made was retiring,” lamented Letterman, who this April will abandon the desk after 35 years.

“Well, you haven’t yet,” said Dr. Phil.

“No, no, but it’s coming,” Letterman said. “And the next thing you know I’m going to be sitting home every day watching Ellen.”

With that McGraw, whose own syndicated show competes against that of Ellen DeGeneres in most markets on weekday afternoons, mimed pulling a knife that had been plunged into his chest. As the audience laughed, Letterman appeased Dr. Phil by teasing, “Oh, I’ve got you recorded. I save you for night when I really need you.”

“Well, I’m watching Kimmel,” Dr. Phil countered.

Shortly thereafter I flipped to NBC, where Fallon was playing “Password” with a trio of celebrity guests—Ellen among them!—and the secret word was “joint.”

Letterman is 67 and Fallon is 40. When Dave was 40 he was donning suits made of Alka-Seltzer tablets and dunking himself into tanks of water, something Fallon would gladly do now. However, 40-year-old Dave was unafraid to disagree with a guest or to challenge one. He was never obsequious. When Cher told Letterman in 1986 (he was 38) that she thought he was “an asshole,” (3:57) he wore that as a badge of honor. As he should.

And yet, if you watch the entirety of that interview, you are treated to seeing two spectacularly talented adults challenge one another with wit and opposing viewpoints. Letterman has always been a curmudgeon, while Fallon may forever be Peter Pan. Letterman has always been the kid who didn’t think he deserved to be at the party, while Fallon is the kid who is hosting the party.

On that same episode with Dr. Phil last week, Letterman unburdened himself to his psychologist guest on the couch—perhaps they should have switched places—that he found fatherhood challenging. “This little boy,” said Letterman, alluding to his 11 year-old son, Harry,  “he’s the only perfect thing I’ve ever done. And now I’m barking at him to get off the damn iPad.”

“That’s because you’re his father,” said Dr. Phil. “His friends tell him the things he wants to hear. His father should be telling him things he needs to hear.”

That’s the finest summation of the contrast between Fallon and Letterman you will ever hear.