The late-night talk show has, for decades, been a staple of television in America. It’s been created, re-created, parodied, sent up, subverted, reverted, washed, dried, and syndicated. Insomniacs everywhere rely on late-night TV shows to confirm that it’s OK to stay up, at least for one more hour, one more guest, at least until Carson Daly appears on their screens. (It gets confusing during The Voice season.)
Perhaps the most storied of the late night talk shows is the Tonight Show. Originally hosted by Jack Parr, the torch passed on to Johnny Carson, then to Jay Leno, then to Conan O’Brien, then back to Jay Leno. Last night, the torch passed one more time, to SNL alum and now two-time Conan O’Brien torch receiver Jimmy Fallon. His wildly popular Late Night reign was marked with beer pong with Betty White, Password with Miss Piggy and covers of pop songs with classroom instruments, marked with the signature wackiness and silliness that 12:35 AM television demands.
What 12:35 AM television hasn’t had in the past is the luxury of the Internet. The incontinent, stressed out, or wasted—they’re on the front lines of late night television. The rest of us, we get to roll into work at 9 AM, pick up a cup of coffee, and see what viral clips are being spread around. As Jimmy Fallon’s tenure on Late Night advanced, so did the volume of Late Night clips going viral. Stock in Fallon has risen, perhaps even higher than Conan’s reign at its peak, due to the super-viral nature of the show, its skits and features, and our society at large. I’ll get back to that in a second.
When Conan made his transition to the Tonight Show, one of the concerns that I had, personally, was whether Conan’s self-deprecating, off-the-wall humor would translate well to the more mainstream audience of the Tonight Show. Part of Leno’s success was his ability to entertain the mainstream—he was never edgy, especially in his last 5 years, post-Conan. Never being edgy paid off, it seemed: Leno’s ratings in his final stand as Tonight Show host topped 4 million viewers. Conan, in an attempt to keep his Late Night viewers happy, stuck to his guns and delivered the same weird, quirky humor that Conan was best known for. The ratings didn’t hold up (or maybe NBC didn’t give it enough time, but that’s its own article) and Leno got his safe, steady late night show back. Today, five years later, we have a host who’s been able to cut his late night chops for five years in the same—albeit truncated—trajectory that Conan had.
What Conan didn’t have, however, was the Internet. At the peak of Conan’s popularity, circa 2004-2005, YouTube was still a blip on the internet, Facebook was still college-only and Twitter wasn’t even a thing yet. Conan’s wild escapades, his crazy characters and his silly expeditions were only known to avid viewers of his show, and knowledge of these skits were like passwords into the wacky Late Night club. Now, in the age where content is being consumed 10 minutes at a time and hits aren’t counted by rating share but by real view counts, every late night show is moving toward viral-tuned content, with Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night leading the way.
In my opinion, Conan lost something in shift from 12:35 to 11:35. His trademark absurdity felt muted to stick to the traditional Tonight Show formula: monologue, skit, guest, guest, musical guest. The Tonight Show under Jay Leno catered to the middle of the audience, with its safe, predictable sketches, lame but amusing monologue and phoned-in interviews. I felt that Conan’s sensibilities and his comedic aim pointed toward that middle, but that target has always been uncomfortable for Conan to hit. I think many expected more from the much-hyped creative genius of Conan O’Brien. In this light—the light of the new, the exciting, the different—is how I choose to review Jimmy’s first night, and the Tonight Show as a whole.
From a structural standpoint, Jimmy’s show is exactly how a late night talk show should be constructed. A new, flashy intro, directed by Spike Lee, is short, poignant, captures the new New York City atmosphere perfectly. The curtain Jimmy delivers his monologue in front of is comfortably familiar, as seen on the right. The modern NBC Orchestra, in spirit if not in practice, is Philadelphia-based The Roots, one of the many ported elements from Jimmy’s stint on Late Night. That’s not the only thing that’s come over from Late Night.
The entire writing and production staff has come over, as well as announcer Steve Higgins. As a matter of fact, watching episode one of The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon felt just like watching any good episode of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The format I saw last night is perfect for the modern late-night talk show: monologue, skit, skit, musical number, guest, guest, musical number, close. I know I tend to tune out after midnight, so getting to the good stuff—the viral stuff—before a majority of people tune out is a good move. (And the Tonight Show’s viral power is showing already: The Evolution of Hip Hop Dance, the show’s very first skit, with guest Will Smith, is already pushing a million views on YouTube.) The weaknesses of the show—mainly, watching Jimmy try to straight talk to people—are minimized in this format. God bless Jimmy Fallon, but interviewing people isn’t his strong suit. That was Carson’s, that was Leno’s (I guess?), that’s not his. But that’s OK, because the bread and butter of Jimmy’s Tonight Show is going to be the bread and butter of Jimmy’s Late Night: getting awesome celebrities to do fun things like beer pong, Password and lip syncing.
I think the combination of putting “the good stuff” before midnight, the creative writing team that’s made Late Night with Jimmy Fallon a hit, and the propensity of EP Lorne Michaels to not change a working formula is going to be a very strong thing for the National Broadcasting Company. It shows through every part of last night’s episode, from the intro, to U2’s rooftop performance, to the cavalcade of stars who lost a $100 bet to Jimmy, that Fallon and his crew understand the illustrious past of the Tonight Show, its present allure and reasons for its success, and how to make the show thrive in the future. Best of luck, Jimmy Fallon.
[message_box title=”tl;dr: The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon” color=”blue”]4 out of 5 stars. All the good stuff from Late Night is here, and packed into a half hour. All the weak stuff from Late Night is also here, and packed into the half hour that I’ve already fallen asleep in.[/message_box]