On Jimmy Fallon’s first night as host of NBC’s "Tonight Show," his first musical guests, the legendary Irish rock band U2, performed their first song perched precariously on the roof of Rockefeller Center with the New York City skyline and a golden dusk shimmering in the background. That moment served dramatic notice that the show had left Burbank far behind.
More than four decades ago, when Johnny Carson moved the show west, the Big Apple was looking rotten while Los Angeles had become the entertainment capital of the country. Today, as production jobs and revenue steadily drain away from L.A., New York is regaining the primacy in live television production that it once had at the dawn of the TV era.
In those early days, comic musician Steve Allen was the first person to claim the host’s chair on the fledgling "Tonight Show." Allen’s wit had a zany, physical edge that would disappear when the hosting job went to the more earnest and urbane Jack Paar.
Unlike Paar, or the man who made the "Tonight Show" an entertainment institution, Johnny Carson, Fallon treats an interview like a quick chat, not a probing discussion. And when it comes to an opening monologue, he doesn’t sling the jokes straight like Carson or like the man whose job he just took, Jay Leno. Instead, in the style of Steve Allen, Fallon does unexpected, often inspired stunts to get a laugh. And, like Allen, he uses his musical talents to expand his entertainment range. (A brilliant case in point: his recent duo performance with Bruce Springsteen in a satire about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s current political predicament.)
It will be interesting to see how Fallon handles the backstage politics of his job. Carson was the absolute ruler of late night who could bestow his blessing on a new comic or ban from his show anyone who crossed him (as happened, famously, with Joan Rivers). Leno battled with David Letterman to become Carson’s heir, then battled his way back into the job after NBC dropped him in favor of Conan O’Brien. On his way out the door this second time, Leno wielded his humor like a set of brass knuckles as he gut-punched NBC executives with anger-driven jokes night after night.
Leno’s bad feelings, however, did not seem to extend to Fallon, who never appeared to be scheming to steal Jay’s job.
Jimmy Fallon seems to be a genuinely nice, normal guy — at times, almost too nice and normal. His first night at the "Tonight Show" desk, the self-deprecation was a touch excessive, his “I-hope-you-like-me” solicitousness a far cry from the confident cool of Carson or the caustic nihilism of Letterman.
On Night 2 he looked more comfortable, sang with a barbershop quartet and, in the tradition of Carson, invited the night’s stand-up comic to take a seat next to him. Of course, the comedian happened to be Jerry Seinfeld, a superstar of comedy who, conceivably, could have filled the host’s seat himself. But Seinfeld already had his tenure as the top cat of NBC. Instead, the quirks and hunches of network strategizing have given us Jimmy Fallon, a hip, happy guy, to see us off to bed with a smile.
Leno and Burbank had a good long run. Now, there’s a new kid on the block and the new address is 30 Rock.