Fallon Joins the Late-Night Wars

It's hard to imagine pitying someone who just got a glitzy, lucrative, high-profile job (or any job, for that matter). But Jimmy Fallon, the charming, if a bit fratty, "Saturday Night Live" alum who is taking the reins of NBC's "Late Night" talk show, shouldn't be the object of anyone's envy. Fallon is taking over for Conan O'Brien, who will take Jay Leno's vacated desk at "The Tonight Show." Leno, meanwhile, will move to a similar show in prime time. That will make Fallon's show the third in NBC's late-night roster, so essentially his mezzanine seat got picked up and moved to the nosebleed section.

And if there's one thing that late-night talk doesn't need now, it's another competitor. "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," despite their smaller audiences on cable, are both top-tier shows, which means that they're also fishing in the same A-list pool for guests. This is where Leno's new gig makes a huge difference. Think of the Angelina Jolies of the world as precious fossil fuels, then imagine prime-time Jay as an emerging world power with a proclivity for gas guzzlers.

Fallon will have to freshen up the late-night format if he wants to flourish. Booking mumbly Robert De Niro as his first guest isn't exactly inspired, but he did pick hip-hop sextet the Roots as his band. Still, it'll take more than hipster-approved music to give people a reason to stay up past their bedtime. Here are a few suggestions:

Bring back the sidekick. Conan used to have the perfect foil—which is why NBC just lured Andy Richter back for O'Brien's big new gig. David Letterman has Paul Shaffer—though we still miss the late, great Larry (Bud) Melman. There's a reason "The View" grew from a daytime punch line into full-fledged appointment viewing: the sometimes zesty, sometimes tense, always entertaining interplay between the hosts. They're there every day. A guest like Joaquin Phoenix, bless his incoherent little heart, comes along only once in a blue moon.

Find a fresh voice. Craig Ferguson, Fallon's CBS competitor, started out shaky, but his "Late Late Show" has been nipping at Conan's heels for a while now. The key to Ferguson's success has been his willingness to follow his own natural rhythm, even when it doesn't hew to the traditional talk-show format. The shows most acclaimed by critics and fans are the ones in which Ferguson gives long, somewhat improvised monologues about his own life, as he did when his father passed away. He scored both his funniest and most poignant moments in one fell swoop. Fallon shouldn't imitate that—because, really, it's not nice to wish your father ill just for good material—but he needs to be original.

Be a ladies' man. Aside from Chelsea Handler, who toils in relative obscurity on E!, late-night talk has always been dominated by men, and not just in front of the camera. Have you ever noticed all those white guys who pile onstage to pick up the talk or variety writing awards at the Emmys? Fallon's humor on "SNL" tended toward the guy-friendly, but with all the competition he'll have now, he can't afford to focus on men ages 18 to 49. He could broaden his coalition fast—by hiring women, maybe even one who could break the sidekick glass ceiling. Has anyone heard from Rachel Dratch lately?

Go live. This one is a bit trickier logistically. After all, not even "Jimmy Kimmel Live" is actually live—it just tapes late in the day. Maybe it would be tougher to get celebrities to come on the show so late, but if high-profile guests will be hard to come by anyway, why not say to hell with them and just get the people game enough to show up after midnight? Plus, getting guests who stay up late was never a problem for Fallon at his old show, and "SNL" is a much bigger time commitment. Live shows have an anything-can-happen electricity that makes them riveting even when nothing out of the ordinary actually happens. One disaster show immortalized on YouTube could go a long way.