Now that Conan O’Brien has come to rest, presumably for more than seven months, as the host of a TBS talk show, it seems like a good time to take another look at the person who replaced him, and I don’t mean Jay Leno. One year and nine months ago Jimmy Fallon — who, like O’Brien, was touched by the hand of Lorne, and I do mean Michaels — followed O’Brien into the “Late Night” chair previously vacated by David Letterman.
FOR THE RECORD:
Jimmy Fallon: A headline on the cover of last Sunday’s Calendar section referred to Jimmy Fallon’s “Late Show.” The name of his show is “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.” Also, the article about “Late Night” said the show’s ongoing parody of vampire dramas is called “Burned.” The title is “Suckers.” —
There is a moment early in the career of every major-network late-night talk show host when the people ask, “Why him?” (There are no “hers” in major-network late-night, and no one ever asks why a particular person might be hosting a basic-cable or a daytime talk show; those things just happen.) And yet with a little time, most new hosts begin to take on a patina of inevitability. Conan may have lasted only seven months captaining “The Tonight Show,” but he commanded “Late Night” for 17 years, and even a short run in late-night produces a lot of television. More than 350 hours of “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” have aired on NBC since March 2009, with Fallon in or near the center of the frame nearly all the time. Along with Craig Ferguson’s very different “Late Late Show,” Fallon’s show seems to me to have moved to the head of its class, although I admit that talk shows are largely a matter of taste: Different hosts for different folks.
It was an uneven beginning: Fallon booked one of the world’s worst interview subjects, Robert DeNiro, as his first guest, and the acknowledged irony — DeNiro was asked questions he could answer in a single word — did not make the interview any better, or funny. But whatever tentativeness Fallon showed has long dissipated, and what he lacks in penetrating insight — if such a thing were even required here — he makes up in enthusiasm. He loves comedy, movies, music and video games (technology gets the attention here that other talk shows deny it) and loves them like a fan, which means that his questions are sometimes weightless — asking Keith Richards to name his favorite Rolling Stones album cover, for example. That does not mean they don’t get interesting results.
Fallon will address his guests as “buddy” or “my friend” or “my man” (as in “My man Dick Cavett is joining us!”). He can sing, and dance more than a little, which not all late-night TV hosts can do, and is an impressive mimic and a good storyteller. He feels “psyched” about things that are “crazy good” or “awesome”; really crazy good awesome things might “blow your pants off.” He is young enough to get away with a phrase like “That’s what I’m talking about” without sounding ironic or like your Uncle Harry coming on all hep. At 36, conveniently positioned between the incoming freshmen of show business and its graying eminences, he’s a little bit hip-hop and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. His dead-on impersonations of Neil Young, in which he marries the lyrics of current pop fluff — “Whip My Hair,” “Pants on the Ground” — to Young’s early acoustic music perfectly embodies this averaging of the generations.
Because of the hinterland hours, the smaller audience and the proportionally reckoned budget, it’s common for late-night hosts, especially late-late nights, to adopt a position of comical self-deprecation (this show stinks) combined with a derogatory attitude to the network that feeds it. “Late Night” doesn’t; rather, it gleams with happy satisfaction.
Most impressive is a number of elaborate serials parodying other television shows, all set within the fictional universe of “Late Night”: “7th Floor West” echoes “The Hills”; “Late” is " Lost,” with Fallon and company stranded on a deserted floor at Rockefeller Center after an elevator crash; “6-bee,” for 6B, the compact studio where the show tapes, was a splendid takeoff on “Glee” that featured Fallon and his staff battling the cast of “Parks and Recreation” to the tune of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going to Take It.” (It worked as a musical number even while it parodied musical numbers; I mean it was kind of exciting.) “The Real Housewives of Late Night” — well, you can work that out. “Burned” is a vampire drama, as comedy. These are very funny, but they also have high production values and narrative elegance and are played straight; the writers seem less concerned with cramming in jokes than with establishing a plausible askew world. That balance applies to the whole of the show, really.
What above all gives the show its special character and makes it such a good place to hang out on an early morning is a spirit of inclusiveness that extends from the host to his band to his writers to the audience. It’s hierarchical to the extent that Fallon is the host and gets to wear a suit — he wears them well — but he’s also in a way along for the ride. There are games to play with the crowd — Wheel of Carpet Samples, Competitive Spit-Takes, the Battle of the Instant Bands. Guests are drafted for skits or made to play Fallon in beer pong or miniature golf.
One of the best bits on “Late Night” is a low-key piece in which Fallon catches up on writing his thank-you notes. (It plays to his natural softness.) “Thank you, shampoo,” he says to himself as he writes, “or as I like to call you when I run out of soap, ‘soap.’” “Thank you, plastic cutlery, for reminding us all how strong bread can be.” Along with the Shout-Outs, in which homage is paid to such things as Scotch tape, the Jheri curl and podiums, it betokens a delight in small, weird things. Wonder and celebration and gratitude are the order of the day here; the knives are not out. It smells like love.