"The Tonight Show" host Jimmy Fallon was jotting down all the L.A. spots he used to frequent during the two years he lived in the city before moving to New York in 1998 for his "Saturday Night Live" gig. If this walk down memory lane was one of his "Tonight Show" games, it might be called "Jimmy Loves L.A." The objective would be to list all the places the comedian fondly remembers in under a minute or get hit with a water balloon.
But Fallon was, instead, preparing for a weeklong stint of taping the New York-based "Tonight Show" in Los Angeles. Camped in a makeshift office (formerly occupied by Chelsea Handler) on the NBCUniversal lot in Universal City, he paused a game of "NBA Jam" to recall some favorite L.A. spots.
"I would listen to 'Breakfast With the Beatles' and drive to this place called Pepy's — it was in a bowling alley in Mar Vista. If not there, we used to go to Patrick's Roadhouse on the PCH. Corned beef hash, I would get, and eggs and rye toast.... My go-to place is Johnnie's Pastrami on Sepulveda in Culver City. The best, best, best … if you want a burger, you gotta go to Apple Pan."
And on and on and on.
Fallon's L.A. run began Monday and marks the second time the comedian has brought N.Y.'s "Tonight Show" out West for a week of episodes — he did so last February to strong ratings. Among his scheduled guests are Jennifer Lopez, Ronda Rousey and Ryan Seacrest.
The 41-year-old host also recently celebrated two years since he took his position behind the legendary late-night desk. And there's much for him to celebrate.
Since taking over for Jay Leno in February 2014, Fallon has delivered for NBC the "Tonight Show's" top two-rated seasons in the last six years. And though CBS has had improved ratings in recent months with Stephen Colbert as the new host of "Late Show," Fallon remains the one to beat.
The "Tonight Show" host has bested Colbert in ratings among 18-to-49-year-olds in all 21 weeks they've gone head to head, and in total viewers, Fallon has dominated in 20 of 21 weeks, losing only when Colbert had his premiere week last September.
The Times sat down with Fallon to discuss how he's feeling two years into the job and what it means to come back to the city where he got his start.
Here you are in L.A. This must be a nice change of pace.
There is sun outside. What happened to El Niño? The kid has not arrived.
L.A. week was just great for us last year. I jump[ed] through Randy's Donut again. I think I'm going to make that an L.A. tradition until I'm too old. I'm going to have somebody carry me through the doughnut hole. That makes me sad. It's going to be like, "Jimmy is 80 years old and someone has to throw him through the doughnut hole."
Does coming back to L.A. remind you of when you were scraping by in those early years, ramen noodles and all?
I remember there was a Carl's Jr. right near CBS Radford. I used to go on auditions and get nothing. It was really discouraging. I remember going into that Carl's Jr. and crying. Not sobbing, but almost losing it. When I came here last year, I rented a convertible Bentley, which I didn't know you could do.... But I took it to that Carl's Jr. and was like, "Who's crying now?" I went in and got a burger — it's still a delicious burger. I have here "Carl's Jr. with teardrops" [points to notes he jotted down] just to remember how sad I was.
Now you've been doing the "Tonight Show" for two years. Does it feel like it?
No, it feels like it's been two weeks. They were like, "We're going to have an anniversary show." And I'm like, "Anniversary show? How long have we been on?" So it was cool to have those two hours to relive some of those moments. Like, oh, I forgot we did a sketch with Carol Burnett or, oh, yeah, I sang a song with Neil Young. Who can say that?
Do you have those moments where were it hits you that you're the host of the "Tonight Show"?
Sometimes I forget it's even me. Like, I'll see the logo and it I'll be like, "I'm the Jimmy Fallon in the whole 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.' " It all happened so fast. I'm still trying to enjoy every single second. I'm always reading autobiographies, and a lot of things people say is, "I never enjoyed it when it was happening." It's true in some ways. I think you do enjoy it in the moment, but you don't enjoy it the way you do in hindsight. I had the best time on "Saturday Night Live," and I enjoyed every second of that. On "Late Night," I enjoyed every second. But some things happen so fast that it's good to have reminders like these anniversary shows. Like, "Hey, you did a lot. You can chill out for a second. You did this, you did that." Because so much hard work goes into it.
Though it's fun, it does seem like a lot of work.
It's good, though. It's good for my brain because I don't know what I would be doing if I didn't have the show. I come up with thousands of ideas, and I'm like, "That's something!" I type it in Evernote, this app. Even if it's not funny. Like, I had an invention the other day. It has nothing to do with the show or comedy, but I had to get it out of my brain. So it's this thing to check the tenderness of a steak. It's basically this sponge on a key chain. And when you touch it, it gives you the feeling of what's rare or medium or well done. And so you're in your kitchen and you press your little key chain sponge-y thing, and then press your real steak and see what level it's at. Right? I don't know how I would put that in the show. But, you know, it's just a constant flow of ideas. Like, what if we wore tight pants and we had a competition, "Who wore tight pants better?" and we made a dumb song about it. Great. We can do that. And so, we write it, Will Ferrell is singing, and we get wigs on and sweaters, and we're dancing, and it's fun.
And celebrities want to be in your sketches. I've heard publicists say it's their goal to have their clients be asked by you to do something outrageous.
Yeah. People just know that we make them look good. We never want to do something that is like, "Eh, that was OK." Every time we do it, we do it right. Now they just trust us. I remember trying to talk Tom Cruise into the first Egg Russian Roulette. He was the first one. His publicist was like, "No, he's not doing that. Why is he cracking an egg?" I'm like, "It's a fun game." She was like, "You talk to him." So I was like, "OK." So I told him, "Tom, I have this game. It's a dozen eggs, two of them are raw. First one to crack two raw eggs on their head loses." He was like, "Love it. Let's play it." We go out to play the game, and first two eggs he cracks on his head are raw. Game over. I can't even, out of camaraderie, crack one on my head. He was covered in egg. His publicist was like, "See, I told you."
But, yeah, we come up with weird, crazy ideas, and people are just game. Like Katie Holmes, "Yeah, I'll take my heels off and play Musical Beers." It's just fun and silly. Sometimes when you do all this press, it takes the fun out of it because you're just saying the same stories over and over again. I'm like, "I'll show everyone a clip of your movie, but then, let's do something else." Or if we have politicians on, it's like, "You can bring up your politics or not. I don't really care. I'm just having you on because you're in the lead or you're running for president of the United States and I just want people to look, see you, and make an opinion if they like you or not."
So what is the feedback you get from people on the street since you became the face of the "Tonight Show"?
Jay warned me. He was like, "It's big, dude. This is really big." Well, he didn't say "dude." But he said, "This is bigger than 'Late Night.' " And he was totally right. I would say four times bigger. I used to walk down the street and I would get recognized here and there. Now, it's guaranteed. And they love the bits, and they want to talk about things and are like, "I just saw Thank You Notes," which is weird because I've been doing that for six years. And the show is in all these different countries — I just did a commercial for Germany. They love us there. Australia, Dubai. It's crazy. It's becoming global now.
Do you see Jay when you come into town?
We asked him if he wanted to stop by the show — we always ask him. He's the nicest guy ever, he never wants to steal the attention. He's like, "You're doing good, buddy, you don't need me." And I'm like, "We do. We want you." Hopefully, he'll be coming out.
'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon'
When: 11:34 p.m. weeknights
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)