Well, that was slightly painful. Jimmy Fallon officially took over “Late Night” last night from Conan O’Brien, and the result wasn’t entirely pretty. When the host is nervous, it makes viewers nervous, and Fallon just didn’t know how to relax. Reviews coming in this morning are charitable, in that we have to cut the guy some slack in his first few episodes, but also generally echo Ray Richmond at The Hollywood Reporter, who said Fallon “tried too hard”: “The ‘Saturday Night Live’ alum and occasional film actor gave his best impression of a deer caught in the headlights wile at the same time exhibiting flashes of comic flair.”
He kicked things off with a mostly unfunny, boilerplate monologue — “one liners about President Obama and the deficit that sounded like material Jay Leno’s writers had faxed over from L.A., said Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker — and not even The Roots (The Roots! How the hell did he land them as a house band?!) could save him when they all tried “Slow Jammin’ The News.” It’s hard to imagine that schtick sticking around. It’s also hard to imagine The Roots doing this gig for the long-haul. At least the audience participation bit “Lick It For Ten,” in which participants literally licked inanimate objects for $10, shows Fallon is trying to think somewhat outside of the box. It wasn’t hilarious, but it was a start.
Both the biggest problem and the best saving grace came in the form of Fallon’s guests. Notoriously monosyllabic interviewee Robert De Niro was a poor choice for a premiere, their scripted “conversation” like pulling teeth. Second guest Justin Timberlake saved the show, and his friend, however, with his charm, ease and impersonations of John Mayer and Michael McDonald. Timberlake can’t always stop by to save the day, though, buddy.
Again, we can’t write him off based on last night, and even what happens the rest of the week, or month. O’Brien had a rocky start to late night, too. Fallon’s track record, however, makes it hard to predict whether he’ll find his voice. This is the guy, remember, who routinely broke character in his “SNL” skits and worked best on the show’s “Weekend Update,” where his lines were short. Can he really carry an entire talk show? Lorne Michaels has always been an advocate for Fallon, urging NBC to consider Fallon back in 2004, when O’Brien announced he’d be taking over for Jay Leno on “Tonight Show” this year. Here’s hoping Michaels knows something we don’t about Fallon’s propensity as a host.
At least we still have O’Brien taking the “Tonight Show” reins on June 1 to look forward to — that’s the best decision NBC has made in years. Putting Leno’s brand of unfunny out to pasture for good is long overdue, and if Fallon finds his voice, NBC may soon have the best late-night block on TV.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.