Fallon a gracious host in 'Tonight Show' debut

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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.

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter: @StevenKJohnson


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