If the rumors are true and “The Tonight Show” is set to return to its ancestral home at 30 Rockefeller Plaza with Jimmy Fallon as host, the move would be a boon for New York City – and maybe even the aging late-night genre itself.
A relocation to the East Coast could also signal an effort by NBC to revitalize the “Tonight Show” brand, still the premier franchise in late-night but now seen as stagnant and too safe.
“From '54 to '72, ‘The Tonight Show’ had the flavor and the feel of New York City,” said Ron Simon, curator of the Paley Center for Media in New York City. “New York was at one point something that executives once shied away from, but with ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘Louie,’ ‘Sex and the City,’ New York is thought of in a different way. The New York spirit is obviously something people have a craving for, whether it’s Jon Stewart or ‘SNL.’”
Los Angeles offers proximity to celebrities and the entertainment business as a whole, but that can come at a creative cost, say some observers.
When “Tonight” was still based in New York, Johnny Carson was seen as edgy – he even wore Nehru jackets — but following the move to Burbank, he settled into his role as Hollywood’s elder statesman, according to Gary Edgerton, dean of the college of communication at Butler University in Indiana.
“'The Tonight Show’ always had a formula, but it became congealed almost in the last 20 years. Of course, that’s what Jay Leno has always been criticized for, that he’s so middle-of-the-road, and so vanilla in his approach to things.”
Fairly or not, New York is believed to have a more innovative and spontaneous comedic sensibility than L.A.
Edgerton points to the example set by Lorne Michaels when he decided to launch “Saturday Night Live” in Manhattan. “He wanted to get away from the way that humor had been domesticated through situation comedies on the West Coast,” he said.
Fallon, born in Brooklyn and raised upstate, has spent nearly his entire career in New York and, more specifically, at 30 Rock, first as a “Saturday Night Live” cast member from 1998 to 2004, then as “Late Night” host starting in 2009.
An excellent mimic who sings, plays the guitar and frequently performs in sketches with guests, Fallon is a throwback to versatile personalities such as Steve Allen and Sid Caesar who defined the early years of TV in New York City, Edgerton said. “He’s a jack-of-all-trades, he can do a variety of different things.”
And though, like Letterman, he’s managed to do something new with the hidebound late-night format, he does so in a much friendlier, less tortured way than his “Late Night” forebear. “All those clips that are passed along, there’s something spirited and charming about them. It’s sort of an old style of entertainment, for the digital era. Fallon still has that exuberance that they had back in the '50s,” Simon said.
Long-time late-night producer Robert Morton, who worked with David Letterman both on “Late Night” and “The Late Show,” sees the move to New York as a smart one. “As far as I am concerned, it’s the best place to do late-night TV,” he said of Manhattan.
In Los Angeles, making the trip out to Burbank to go on “Tonight” is seen as a part of the daily grind of celebrity, according to Morton, but the New York late-night experience is more memorable.
“You walk into 30 Rock, you walk into the Ed Sullivan Theater. I don’t care what you’re doing, if you’re a plumber. It’s a special place to work. Guests go in there, they feel part of New York, part of showbiz history. Here, you’re going to factories.”
Even the Big Apple's legendary space constraints could be a good thing. “For economic purposes as well as for the feel of a show, intimate is better,” Morton said.