Starting his “Tonight Show” hosting tenure Monday, Jimmy Fallon proved he can snag A-listers and, in the early going, ratings. The numbers that came out Tuesday showed him crushing the competition, at least for now.
But his moments of real, almost awkward humility during a scattershot hour of television made you wonder if he will rise to the occasion of taking over one of television’s most storied franchises or be stifled by it.
Welcoming guests Will Smith and U2 — and starting 30 minutes later than the show’s usual time because of NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage — Fallon carefully introduced himself to the older folks who were, presumably, watching.
He thanked his parents, who were in the studio audience, members of the generation that loyally tuned in to Fallon’s predecessor at the “Tonight” desk, Jay Leno.
He talked about his love for his infant daughter and his wife, as well as for announcer Steve Higgins and house band The Roots, both moving over with Fallon from NBC’s “Late Night” program.
That Fallon is not afraid of emotion sets him apart from the previous generation of hosts: Leno, David Letterman on CBS, even Jimmy Kimmel on ABC. That he has so very much of it doesn’t exactly keep the party rolling.
Only a couple of jabs at NBC’s mishandling of the “Tonight” transition kept comedy in his opening segment. “I’m Jimmy Fallon, and I’ll be your host — for now,” he said, a nod to NBC giving “Tonight” to Conan O’Brien in 2009 and then taking it back the next year.
Then, with a pointed list, he thanked the hosts who had come before him: “Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno.”
If he didn’t exactly come roaring out of the gate, Fallon did demonstrate the mixture of old-world courtliness, junior high goofiness and seemingly unending enthusiasm that has charmed audiences, network bosses and fellow stars.
When he finally started his monologue (all of it about the Olympics that his network is broadcasting), it felt a lot more like what Fallon’s “Tonight” will be.
His best line related to the U.S.-Russia men’s hockey game: “The American team said that they were thrilled with the win, while the Russian team is missing.”
Will he be able to deliver a hefty dose of the more news-based humor that Leno advised him the job demands? Subsequent shows will tell, but interest in current events seems far below pop culture in Fallon’s outlook.
It felt even more like Fallon’s “Tonight” when he said, “To my buddy who said I’d never be the host of ‘The Tonight Show,’ ... You owe me 100 bucks.” And then a dozen or so stars from Tina Fey to Kim Kardashian to Stephen Colbert — two weeks of great bookings on most talk shows — walked out simply to pay off the bet.
Raised in upstate New York, the former “Saturday Night Live” Weekend Update anchor becomes the sixth (or seventh) host of a show that started 60 years ago. In the same night, “The Tonight Show” returned to New York City, where it originated, and was turned over to a new generation.
Fallon, 39, takes over from the 63-year-old Leno and ushers the show into the era of social media and bits that have to be able to compete the next day for the attention of the Internet.
It’s no surprise that there was an early, taped comedy segment, with Fallon and Smith performing the funny but not particularly original “The Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing,” which took viewers through M.C. Hammer and up to the twerk. If you missed it, somebody will be forwarding it to you soon enough.
His show put its guest band, too, into a couple of new settings. First, U2 played its new single, “Invisible,” on the roof of NBC’s 30 Rockefeller Center building, a stunning city locale that almost made you overlook the blandness of the song, and then the band played another (better) tune while seated on the couch.
The couch, by the way, is lovely, part of a new set that emphasizes stained wood and a midcentury modern style. Did Fallon need to thank the set designer on air? Probably not.
But, again, it’s part of that courtliness that has him embracing late-night traditions. On a promotional visit last fall to Chicago, he said he wants to honor the legacy of inaugural host Steve Allen, who had smart conversations and rolled around in a giant bowl like a human banana split.
Fallon’s is a different outlook from the sarcastic approach of Letterman, who, passed over for “Tonight,” inaugurated late night on CBS. Starting the “Late Night” show in the 1980s, Letterman made his mark by seeming to treat the very idea of hosting a talk show with skepticism.
The advantage Fallon has is a real gift for performance and mimicry, especially of musicians, and a keen eye for the buzz-worthy. Just weeks ago, Fallon and Bruce Springsteen sang a “Born to Run” parody making fun of New Jersey’s bridge-closing scandal.
On the other hand, as he showed again Monday, the “Tonight” staples of delivering traditional monologue jokes and, especially, conducting celebrity interviews rank much lower in the Fallon skill set.
He’ll land the big stars, no problem. But will an audience used to Leno’s formula stick with this new guy who’d rather make those stars sing or dance than talk about anything real?
Fallon certainly began with a ratings bang. His “Tonight” debut drew an estimated 9- to 10-million viewers in preliminary overnight ratings and handily beat the combined appeal of Letterman and Kimmel, according to Variety.
While that will likely drop as the promotional budget dwindles and some core “Tonight” viewers peel away, perhaps to Letterman, all Fallon really has to do is win the battle of the web and the battle of demographics, hanging on to the younger viewers who watched him even later at night.
He seems likely to land big stars regardless. Fallon’s first weeks of guest bookings are a demonstration of the star power and, more particularly, the likability he has established.
First lady Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, Kristen Wiig, Bradley Cooper and Justin Timberlake are among his scheduled visitors.
Timberlake has been Fallon’s No. 1 running buddy; they have become almost as inseparable as Justin Bieber and scandal.
It was surely only Timberlake’s concert Monday at the United Center in Chicago that kept him from being an inaugural guest. Instead, he’ll close the first week, Friday night, between tour dates in New York City and Buffalo, N.Y.
Fallon taking over “Tonight” also marks NBC’s complete submission to producer Lorne Michaels, who has parlayed control of “Saturday Night Live” and close relationships with its stars into a guiding hand over, now, “Tonight,” plus “SNL” and, beginning next Monday, Fallon’s successor show, “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”
In a television world that’s suppposed to be ever more fractured, that’s a whole lot of airtime going to one particular take on the world and what’s funny about it.