Here To Stay

02.18.14

Jimmy Fallon’s Brilliant ‘Tonight Show’ Debut

After such an assured first night, Jimmy Fallon already looks like a happy, permanent fixture in the Tonight Show pantheon.

Jimmy Fallon has scaled the highest height in television and is now posed proudly at the pinnacle. Having risen very visibly through the ranks of TV fame—from featured player on Saturday Night Live to host of his own very-late-night TV show, he is host of the newly renovated, Manhattan-based, blindingly shiny Tonight Show, the premiere of which proved emphatically and immaculately entertaining on NBC last night.

“Even if I weren’t involved, I’d be so psych’d to watch it,” Fallon said of his own first show, and it’s understandable if he doesn’t think of the series as “his own” yet, even understandable if he never does. The Tonight Show is an entitlement bestowed on a privileged few, with the host more the custodian of a showbiz heritage than the actual owner of anything.  

Indeed! The Tonight Show is the TV equivalent of the White House. You fight and scheme and pray to get it, even while knowing fully that, like life itself, occupation is temporal. Perhaps one of the duties ascribed to Steve Higgins, Fallon’s overly tall sidekick and announcer (transplanted, like the incomparable house band, The Roots, from Fallon’s Late Night show) should be to follow Fallon around with an umbrella while chanting repeatedly in the host’s left ear, “Thou art mortal, thou art mortal, thou art mortal,” the way Caesar’s flunkies did back in The Day. Way back.

One of Fallon’s great virtues, however, is a seemingly self-effacing humility rare in show (or any) business. He knows he’s mortal and likely doesn’t need reminding. Could he be faking that boyish, nice-guy, eager-to-please charm, the way “sincerity” is perpetually faked all over the spectrum? Maybe, but he still seems subject to an honesty that can’t be suppressed, a streak of what might be called The Genuines that live contentedly in his blood stream.

Yes, he needs to relax, and maybe cool it a little with the clapping, the drunk-uncle laughter, the excessive delight at whatever and whoever comes his way—but the sheer force of his apparent happiness is essentially irresistible. Some people spend fortunes and bathe their brains in drugs to create and sustain this kind of bliss; how disheartening it would be to learn that Fallon requires artificial stimuli to reach it, but that seems very, very unlikely. There’s considerable evidence to support the idea that Our Boy Jimmy is as genuine as they come.

Since The Tonight Show is now a Lorne Michaels production—ending nearly 40 years of enforced separation between the two domains, Tonight and SNL—all the trappings are impeccable, and that would include an opening-credit sequence created by Spike Lee, and SNL veteran Eugene Lee’s (no relation to Spike) strikingly simple set, with Fallon apparently having brought his blue curtain over to Studio 6-B from Late Night across the hall as a good-luck charm, plus a gorgeous model of the Manhattan skyline rising up from behind the desk. The Roots now preside from a large, wooden bandstand, the aggregation having grown slightly in size.

Some of the old Late Night staples, like the writing of fake “thank-you notes” on Friday nights, will be brought over to the new environment, but on opening night there wasn’t time to do much but jump up and down in joy, figuratively speaking (Fallon did literally jump up and down, logically enough, during an “Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing” sketch costarring Fallon’s first guest, Will Smith) and to be delighted at this historic turn of events.

It’s a refreshing contrast to all the dark and mean-spirited stuff that passes for comedy in the 21st century.

In the most spectacular sequence of the evening, a parade of stars and superstars filed past Fallon’s handsome desk to congratulate him on the new job and to pay off alleged $100 bets that he would never make it. Among the well-wishers wishing well: Robert DeNiro, Tina Fey (long ago Fallon’s “Weekend Update” co-anchor on Saturday Night Live), Joe Namath, Rudolph Giuliani, Mariah Carey, Tracy Morgan (another SNL alumnus), Joan Rivers (who back in another century had a notorious feud with Johnny Carson, most revered of all Tonight Show hosts), Seth Rogen, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lady Gaga, Steven Colbert (who paid off his $100 debt with a bucketful of pennies) and, I think, one of them damn Kardashians.

It was festive and crazed but never mere bedlam; Fallon is too disciplined and too conservative to allow that. He said, “I can’t believe this is happening,” but we all know that he could. His irrepressible ingenuousness was out in full force—from a shot of his proud, slightly plump parents sitting in the audience to such Fallonesque declarations as “I hope I do well” and “I really don’t know how I got here.” His hope, he said: that his brand of Tonight will help us “go to sleep with a smile on your face” and even help us live “longer lives,” or words to that effect.

Most of Jimmy Fallon’s words are to that effect, and even if sometimes on the corny side, it’s still a nice effect to strive for. It’s a refreshing contrast to all the dark and mean-spirited stuff that passes for comedy in the 21st century.

Meanwhile—not even Arsenio Hall, who first popularized the phrase “Give it up for” as a replacement for “Let’s hear it for” when bringing a guest out from the wings, seems to use it much anymore, but there was Jimmy, sticking to this nouveau show-biz tradition, with “Give it up for The Roots,” whom he’d earlier called “the most talented band—ever.” They’ve been a perfect fit for Fallon since his and their very first Late Night show, and they will have no trouble eclipsing fusty, fidgety Paul Shaffer over at Late Show with David Letterman on CBS.

In a nearly perfect world—make that a slightly, somewhat, semi-perfect world, as close as we’ll ever get—the newly enlarged population of late-night talk shows could divide up the available audience according to tidy little demographic categories, with Fallon luring younger viewers than Letterman, who surely has the baby boomers (yay!) all locked up. Conan O’Brien is still in there swinging on cable’s hard-to-find TBS (or is it TNT? Or is it—oh who cares?) while Jimmy Kimmel attracts God-knows-who to his nightly ABC hour and Hall, on the CW network, caters to those who like their late-night noisy.

We live, as becomes more and more inescapable, in a branded world of product and enterprise, and the one discomforting thing about the Fallon version of Tonight is how entangled it is already with various promotions and gimmicks and extra added distractions. During one of Tonight’s commercial breaks, up popped the host himself doing a commercial for XFINITY Entertainment, which is part of Comcast just as NBC-Universal now is. It seemed a wee bit incestuous.

Many many years ago, I ran into SNL players Al Franken (now a United States senator from Minnesota) and Tom Davis (who lost his fight with cancer in 2012) in the garage of the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood. They were on their way to break in their new act at one of the L.A. comedy clubs, and they proudly showed me a good-luck telegram they’d received earlier in the day from “Lorne.”

It said, “If you can make it there, you can make it there.”

What brings this to mind? Oh the fact that with all the talk of “communities” in the world—even a “snowboarding community,” according to an announcer at NBC’s Winter Olympics—there really is a Saturday Night Live community, an ever-growing subculture of writers and performers and artists and artisans who pass through SNL or another of Michaels’ enterprises and graduate to greener pastures or, block that metaphor, move into penthouses higher in the sky. That heritage is probably just as auspicious as is proprietorship of The Tonight Show. Or more so.

And even though the evidence of a single opening night cannot possibly be considered conclusive, it seems safe to bet way more than $100 that if Jimmy Fallon can make it there, he can make it there. And he will.