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It’s Jimmy Fallon’s World, and Thank God For It

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | February 26, 2014 | Comments ()


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It was four years ago last month that Conan O’Brien ended his brief run as host of The Tonight Show amid a messy public squabble between himself, ousted host Jay Leno, and NBC over time slots and network control. It was a weird time. Many viewers found themselves ideologically invested in a turf war and scheduling conflict that was, if not quite the meaningless shuffle that NBC said, certainly less egregious than the moral affront to O’Brien’s honor than we found ourselves believing it to be. O’Brien took over the show with a mix of desperation and pomp, dwarfed by the massive stage in Universal City, and tempered his self-deprecation and irony a little for a broader audience. It bumped along until he and the network and Leno came to loggerheads over who deserved the 11:35 p.m. ET time slot and who should follow, with O’Brien eventually out and Leno reinstated by March. O’Brien launched Conan on TBS that fall.

No such drama or angst accompanied the latest transition for The Tonight Show. Leno, put out to pasture for real this time, cleared the chair for Jimmy Fallon, who’d been hosting Late Night, O’Brien’s old show, since March 2009. Fallon’s now got just under five years of late-night hosting duty under his belt, to go with his six years as a performer on Saturday Night Live (and a few movie misfires that confirmed Fallon’s perfect place is the small screen). He’s charming, funny, easygoing, and the ideal choice for the job. He’s also the total opposite of O’Brien. Those two things are not unrelated.

Fallon turns 40 this year, making him the youngest of the major late-night hosts. (His only real contemporary is Seth Meyers, who just turned 40 in December, and who now sits in Fallon’s old chair at Late Night.) By contrast, Jimmy Kimmel turns 47, O’Brien turns 51, Craig Ferguson turns 52, and David Letterman turns 67. Fallon was in elementary school when Letterman’s version of Late Night debuted in 1982. That’s the kind of gap we’re talking about here. That’s part of what makes him so different. Letterman, the sardonic master, was a clear influence on O’Brien, who peppers his monologue and interviews with jokes about his own foolishness. Fallon, on the other hand, just wants to have fun. He’s plugged into pop culture, which gives him the ability to lampoon it. He’s younger, looser, sillier, steeped in a different set of references and not a bit afraid of using them to connect with the audience. His musical moments alone show the date range he’s willing to work with: riffing on everyone from the Neil Young of the 1970s, to the Springsteen of the 1980s, to the Mariah Carey of the 1990s, to the pop stars of today. This is a guy who just wants to have a good time.

That’s sometimes held against Fallon, though, which is a mistake. Slate recently said Fallon was “nice” with a tone somewhere between bordeom and resentment, when Fallon’s charm has been his biggest weapon all along. He always, always looked like he was having a good time on SNL, no matter he was doing. His inability to keep a straight face wasn’t a flaw, but a sign of what kind of entertainer he wanted to be. He’s not the guy sinking into a sketch character; he’s the guy mugging through lines and excited that everybody at home gets to play along. He didn’t spawn catch phrases, and his acting never got deeper than “Jimmy Fallon plays a guy who does X,” but it didn’t matter. He was finding his voice, and his voice was a vibe.

Justin Timberlake’s recent parody of Fallon on SNL — done in a sketch co-starring Fallon — was built on the good-guy, overly excited persona that Fallon grew into on Late Night, and while it was accurate, it wasn’t a dig. It was actually a great way to sum up why Fallon’s so perfect for late-night hosting duties, including The Tonight Show. You can’t imagine him getting in a turf war. You can’t imagine him being as clumsy and out of touch as Leno, or as prickly and aloof as O’Brien. He wants everyone to have a good time. He’s about parties, and goofy games, and celebrity cameos, and getting along. He has zero interest in interviewing beyond the conventional necessity to set up his guest’s stories and talking points. He says “awesome” a lot, and unironically. His goal is to bring everyone together to hang out. He can facilitate that better than almost anybody else on TV right now.

Fallon has zero interest in controversy. A few years ago on Late Night, he hosted Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota conservative and outspoken Tea Party activist. His house band, The Roots, played a snippet of a song called “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” as Bachmann walked out for her interview. Band member Questlove had even teased beforehand that they had something in store. When word got out, Fallon put out the fire on Twitter, apologized to Bachmann, and expressed his desire for her to return. This is not a guy who wants to ask pointed political questions on his show. This is a guy who wants to reunite the California Dreams. He understands two very important things: 1) when it comes to late-night TV, people don’t watch shows, they watch hosts, so it’s vital to be yourself if you want to make a connection with a viewer; and 2) by 11:30 at night (or over YouTube the next morning), most people would rather laugh than do anything else. He’s a host in a true sense: someone who oversees a good party for grateful guests.

Ironically, Fallon is now living out the credo that O’Brien himself laid out on his final Tonight Show. Speaking specifically to his younger viewers, O’Brien said: “Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism. For the record, it’s my least favorite quality. It doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.” And on his penultimate show, he’d said, “Let’s have fun on television!” That’s exactly what Fallon is doing, and he does it better than almost anyone else. Long may he run.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.


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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • To prove his power as a talk show host: I not only watched his segment with Reese Witherspoon the other night, but I also enjoyed it. That's saying a lot with me.

  • LL

    He just brings so much joy to his show and seeing someone with uncontained laughter is better than whatever joke they were trying to tell. Jimmy sings, dances, acts, plays instruments, and does impersonations. What other host does that? He'll doing anything to make you smile. And all late night interviews are about 10 mins tops. Look at Kanye's interview with Seth Meyers. It was good, but wouldn't you rather see him sing karaoke to the White Stripes?

  • Guest

    He just brings so much joy to his show and seeing someone with uncontained laughter is better than whatever joke they were trying to tell. Jimmy sings, dances, acts, plays instruments, and does impersonations. What other host does that? He'll doing anything to make you smile. And all late night interviews are about 10 mins tops. Look at Kanye's interview with Seth Meyers. It was good, but wouldn't you rather see him sing karaoke to the White Stripes?
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  • googergieger

    I don't find him funny and his interviews might as well just be Charlie Brown grown ups.

    But yeah he is a nice guy probably. If nothing else. Literally.

  • Cowtools

    The only thing I wish Fallon would fix is the monologue. His enthusiasm is infectious, but the jokes are mostly just so lame it's embarrassing. Everything else about his show works, but the opening monologue just seems perfunctory.

  • Sirilicious

    I think Late Nigh would be better across the board if they all just skipped the monologue. There's some funny bits, but too much filler or embarrassment.

  • NateMan

    He really does seem like a nice guy. And we need more of those. One of the best things about his collaborations with Timberlake is that not only do they seem to be friends but he humanizes JT as well, makes him seem like more of a normal guy. He does that with a lot of his guests. And he's truly happy and grateful to be where he is. He'll never be my #1 entertainment choice, but he's funny, smart, and happy. Good enough.

  • Donna SHerman

    I remember a few years ago when EVERYONE was hating on Jimmy Fallon, and I never understood it. I love this piece. He may not be for everyone, but there should be more people like him.

  • devilgod

    Never been able to stand him and I still can't stand him.

  • stella

    Wait what? There are people who hate Jimmy Fallon? Why?

  • People with brains

    Jimmy Fallon is garbage.

  • Miss Jane

    Leno...is that you?

  • Did you see the lip sync bit he did with Paul Rudd last night? It was hilarious - just what I needed after a hard day at a pretty depressing job. That is not garbage, People with brains. That is a gift.

    And, if you're not interested in Fallon, why did you read the article?

  • Mrs. Julien

    That's just the kind of incisive rhetoric the Pajiba comments section needs.

  • Zuffle

    If it turns out he's some sort of reanimated garbage monster, you're going to feel pretty rude, Mrs J.

  • Aaron Schulz

    I really hope he is a reanimated garbage monster now. Like the Toxic Avenger only friendly and really into sketch comedy

  • Mrs. Julien

    I'm the kind of woman who likes to live on the edge.

  • cruzzercruz

    I really enjoy Jimmy Fallon's show and, despite the fact that I almost always despise the quality in actual people, his puppy dog-ish need to please is endearing. That being said, I still would rather have Conan on that stage every night.

    But, I guess the fact that they're both still on TV should be enough. And now there's room for Seth Meyers.

  • Conan is awesome, but an alternative to the major networks suits him perfectly. He can fly his freak flag and we as strange as he wishes.

    Fallon is a warm, merino blanket for the masses. We are grateful that he's also clever and funny.

  • Arran

    I find it endearing in Fallon because it's so clear that it's not an act. He really is like that.

  • Mrs. Julien

    I just like it that he has a job now, as opposed to SNL, where he is allowed to laugh at the jokes. He's going to juuust fine.

  • A big, goofy, sing-a-long amen to that.

  • Cathy Parsons

    my neighbor's half-sister Μ­­­­­­а­­­­­­κ­­­­­­℮­­­­­­ѕ $­­­­­82/hr on the с­­­­­­օ­­­­­­Μ­­­­­­р­­­­­­υ­­­­­­τ­­­­­­℮­­­­­­r. She has been fired for six Μ­­­­­­օ­­­­­­ո­­­­­­τ­­­­­­հ­­­­­­ѕ but last Μ­­­­­­օ­­­­­­ո­­­­­­τ­­­­­­հ her income was $­­­­­12684 just W­­­­­­օ­­­­­­r­­­­­­κing on the с­­­­­­օ­­­­­­Μ­­­­­­р­­­­­­υ­­­­­­τ­­­­­­℮­­­­­­r for a Ϝ­­­­­­℮­­­­­­W հ­­­­­­օ­­­­­­υ­­­­­­rs. official webѕ­­­­­­і­­­­­­τ­­­­­­℮,... Profitbeatsnow2014startc2qv....

    ♚♚♚ ♚�♚♚ ♚♚♚ ♚♚♚ ♚�♚♚♚ ♚♚♚where he is allowed to laugh at the jokes. He's going to juuust fine.

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