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