Late-Night Wars

Jimmy Fallon and Jay Leno’s Video: Does Either Host Win?

The late-night frenemies address all of the firing-and-hiring rumors with a duet of “Tonight.” But does it offer any insight into who will actually be hosting Tonight?

Awkward? Hilarious? Brilliant? Bonheaded? What are we to make of the Monday night clip featuring Jimmy Fallon and Jay Leno together, for the first time, directly addressing rumors that Fallon will replace Leno as The Tonight Show host and the vicious media brouhaha that has followed?

The publicity-stunt-turned-viral-video tackles the events of the past few weeks—reports that Leno is being forced out his Tonight slot in favor of the younger, hipper Fallon; Leno’s pointed attacks on NBC during his Tonight monologues; a frenzied media circus over the whole ordeal—through, what else, song. The clip kicks off with the two hosts chatting on the phone about how they’re weathering the media storm. “We’re still friends, right?” Fallon asks. Leno: “Of course.” Then the music swells as the two launch into a duet of West Side Story’s “Tonight,” with lyrics changed to reflect their current predicament.

The Hollywood Reporter cites an NBC source who said, “The collaboration is an important and arguably the first savvy PR step in NBC’s late-night saga as it signaled that there are no hard feelings between the two hosts.” Deadline Hollywood’s reply: “Oh barf.”

Reactions to the video, are, clearly, as divided as—and reflective of—opinions on the polarizing hosts. Some found the whole thing cheesy, like The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman, who said, it “plays like a clip from a Hallmark movie about gay lovers that’s airing sometime soon on Bravo.” Entertainment Weekly’s Lynette Rice thought Fallon’s involvement “classed up the talk about his ascendance to The Tonight Show throne.” But is it the “seamless bridge” between both shows that NBC’s PR team is trumpeting? And does one host—if anyone—come off looking better than the other?

The lyrics to the song, which Fallon and Leno lipsynch to, do address with shocking candor every report about the late-night musical chairs that’s leaked to the media:

Fallon: Only you, every night you throw to me, Jay Leno. In the news, all they do is say 'I'm replacing you.' They think I can woo the demo.

Leno: So the network says, 'Here's an idea. Pack your bags, take a hike, NBC-ya.'

Fallon: Tonight, tonight, who's gonna host Tonight? Is it gonna be Jimmy or Jay? Tonight, tonight, where will they tape tonight? In New York? Will it stay in L.A.?

Leno:Tonight, tonight, my ratings were all right. Twenty years, and I'm still in first place. Tonight, tonight, I've got Fox on the line. Or maybe I could take over for Dave?

Both: Tonight, tonight. Why do they say we fight? I like you. You like me. We're okay. Tonight, tonight, who cares who hosts Tonight? People just watch online the next day.

That last line is key. The bit was reportedly Fallon’s idea. Once Leno agreed to participate, Late Night producers flew to L.A. to film his half of the bit. Leno certainly comes off as a good sport in the clip—especially since he’s the one reportedly being ousted and bearing the brunt of a torrent of “good riddance” press. But “people just watch online the next day,” a line that they both sing, illustrates just why hiring Fallon for Tonight is the right move. Viral videos that people watch the next day, like the one we’re dissecting right now, are his specialty.

Meredith Blake at the Los Angeles Times said the video “was a smart way for Leno and Fallon to address the perceived between them, but it didn’t do much to dampen rumors that Fallon is poised to take over Tonight in the very near future.”

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Even still, Goodman argues that the clip—in addition to, he thinks, not being funny—is still a bad move for Fallon. “If prevailing wisdom is true—that you want to get younger in late night as ABC is doing with Kimmel by switching to the younger and hipper Fallon—why tie him to Leno at all?” he said. “Leno is the past…It also, perhaps inadvertently, sends the message that Leno is more powerful and he set this whole thing up and got the only late-night host who would say a good word about him to do just that.”

If this is any sort of olive branch—though it’s still unclear which host is extending it to whom—it’s a flimsy one at best. Leno may have been game to be a viral star for a day, but his bitterness over his treatment by NBC hardly disappeared. On Monday night, the same night this clip aired, Leno continued taking shots at the Peacock execs: “NBC and I have reached a peaceful, amicable agreement that is beneficial to both sides…April Fools! That’s totally ridiculous! Never happened!” (Granted, the joke is not as harsh as when he called NBC “a big number two.”)

While the clip may have failed to definitively answer the looming questions over the futures of both hosts—and, for some, failed as comedy, too—it is hard not to read into its ending. A stage manager comes to wrangle Fallon. “Jimmy, it’s time,” she says.

“I’ve got to, Jay,” Fallon says.

“Do a good show, Jimmy,” Leno replies.

“I will. And Jay? Thanks.”

*Should it need clarification: This author is not related to Jimmy Fallon—unless, that is, you’re talking about the retired painting contractor from Long Island. He’s my grandfather, and, yes, totally cool.