Jimmy Fallon readies his next-generation yet throwback ‘Tonight Show’

NEW YORK — Outside Studio 6B at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the once and future home of “The Tonight Show,” the smell of fresh paint and sawdust fills the air. Visitors to one of the last tapings of “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” are led up a back staircase by an NBC page, winding carefully past dusty drop cloths and dumpsters piled with construction waste.

Jimmy Fallon: A Feb. 16 article about new “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon said that the program was returning to the same NBC New York studio where it resided for its first 15 years before Johnny Carson took the show to Burbank. For the show’s first three years, when it was hosted by Steve Allen, it originated out of the Hudson Theatre in New York. Under Jack Paar and then Carson, it was produced at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where it resided until 1972.

It’s just a matter of days until the launch of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” and if NBC’s hive-like headquarters aren’t quite ready, Fallon most definitely is.

“Let’s do it! We’re all just ready to unleash,” he says in his office, a big-for-New York space decorated with dark wood and pressed tin ceilings. After nearly a year of anticipation and a months-long publicity blitz, the comedian is eager to get started on his new gig Monday night. “Everyone here’s so pumped and excited.”


“Excited” is a word that comes up frequently (nearly two dozen times, by this reporter’s count) in conversation with Fallon, who seems to lack the darker edges so common in his profession. At 39, Fallon, dressed in a plaid shirt and gray khakis, seems younger. He is enthusiastic bordering on hyperactive, bouncing from topic to topic and speaking in near-constant hyperbole.

PHOTOS: Classic ‘Tonight Show’ moments

One minute he’s showing off his stained-glass guitar (“the best guitar in the history of the world”), the next he’s scrolling through his phone to share pictures of his beaming daughter, Winnie, welcomed in July by Fallon and his wife, film producer Nancy Juvonen (“the coolest thing in the whole wide world”).

This optimistic energy is sure to come in handy at “Tonight,” where he will become just the sixth host in the 60-year history of the venerable franchise. Particularly after the acrimonious Late Night War of 2010, all eyes will be on Fallon to see if his tenure is more successful. He remained studiously neutral throughout the debacle that ended with Conan O’Brien’s departure from “Tonight” after just seven months, and despite what some have seen as passive-aggressive griping by Leno, the handover this time around has been handled gracefully.

“Jay’s been totally supportive,” says Fallon, fresh off a visit to Burbank for his last guest appearance on Leno’s show. “We’re friends, as much as we can be living on different coasts. He calls me every couple weeks, just to check in, like, ‘Hey, hanging in there, buddy?’”

When Leno signed off on Feb. 6, he was still the top-rated host in late-night television, a position he’d maintained steadily since the mid-'90s (except during his ill-fated move to 10 p.m.). And while “Tonight” remains the marquee brand, the competition for eyeballs is fiercer than ever. At last count there are at least 13 other cable, network and syndicated late-night talk shows on the air, including “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “The Colbert Report” and “Conan.”

PHOTOS: 13 memorable stars from ‘Saturday Night Live’

Fallon at least left “Late Night” with a bang: His Feb. 7 swan song, in which he performed a sweet rendition of the Band’s classic anthem “The Weight” alongside the Muppets, drew the highest ratings the show has seen since David Letterman signed off in 1993.


And the comedian is determined to maintain a healthy attitude in the face of inevitable scrutiny. “I’m sure the ratings will be big for the first week after the Olympics,” he says, “and then they’ll go down and people will say, ‘Fallon lost 40% of this viewers, this is terrible.’ I’m preparing myself for that roller coaster. Don’t believe the good stuff, and don’t believe the bad stuff.”

Growing into it

When Fallon made his “Late Night” debut, few if any could have predicted he’d ascend to the “Tonight” throne in just under five years. O’Brien, his predecessor, had just been promoted to 11:35 after 16 years and a protracted, five-year transition of power from Leno.

At the time, Fallon, a former breakout star on “Saturday Night Live,” where he co-anchored “Weekend Update” with Tina Fey and played memorable characters such as obnoxious IT guy Nick Burns, was rebounding from a lackluster attempt at a film career, starring in the flops “Taxi” and “Fever Pitch.” (If he hadn’t been tapped by producer Lorne Michaels to take over “Late Night,” Fallon figures he’d be starring in independent movies “if I was lucky” or be a content stay-at-home dad.)


PHOTOS: Winter TV Preview 2014

At first, it was far from obvious that Fallon was cut out for late-night TV, either. His premiere garnered mixed reviews, with his nervous monologue and uncertain interviewing skills drawing nearly unanimous criticism.

But over its freshman year, the show quietly blossomed, drawing on Fallon’s arsenal of impressions and musical abilities and capitalizing on its house band, the Roots, a versatile, Grammy-winning hip-hop ensemble from Philadelphia. In one early standout clip, Fallon, doing a spot-on Neil Young, teamed with Bruce Springsteen for a heartfelt version of Willow Smith’s mindless hit “Whip My Hair.”

A turning point came when Fallon hosted the Emmys in 2010. His energetic turn — he opened the show with a rousing performance of “Born to Run” featuring Fey, Jon Hamm and the cast of “Glee” — is the moment when viewers and critics alike realized he might be pretty good at this hosting thing. (Times critic Mary McNamara praised Fallon as “infectiously happy.”)


Since then, even for viewers who don’t stay up until 12:37 a.m., it’s been difficult for anyone with an Internet connection to ignore that Fallon is up to something different. He’s “slow-jammed the news” — a recurring bit where hot-button issues are soberly discussed to a sultry R&B beat — with President Obama. He’s presented the “Evolution of Mom Dancing” with Michelle Obama and “The History of Rap” in four parts with frequent collaborator Justin Timberlake.

PHOTOS: WGA’s top 101 shows

“I love the fact that here you have a guy who’s going to be hosting ‘The Tonight Show’ who can almost claim Justin Timberlake and Bruce Springsteen as members of his rep company,” says David Bianculli, founder of the website and a professor of TV and film at New Jersey’s Rowan University. “That’s a whole different sort of animal.” Bianculli likens Fallon to the first “Tonight” host, Steve Allen, who was similarly known for his musical gags.

One of Fallon’s strengths is his ability to get celebrities to let down their hair — no small feat in an era of hyper-controlling publicists and carefully calculated pre-interviews. He likes to engage his guests in games with self-explanatory names — Egg Russian Roulette, Water War, Antler Ring Toss — that encourage stars to go off script and infuse the show with a playful vibe.


“It’s improv without calling it that,” says Fallon. “What I love is seeing, is Scarlett Johansson competitive if you play Pictionary with her?”

The Internet has also fundamentally altered the landscape, allowing shows to be consumed in bits and pieces online. Coming up with clever bits that go viral — like Fallon and Timberlake’s "#Hashtag” sketch, which has notched 21 million views on YouTube — is nearly as important as Nielsen ratings. Fallon and his soon-to-be rival, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, are both attuned to this in a way that Leno and Letterman never were.

BEST TV OF 2013 Lloyd | McNamara

Predicts Bianculli, “I think Fallon will compare very favorably with Jay because his stuff is so much more clever and so much more vibrant. It’s ‘The History of Rap’ versus ‘Headlines.’ That’s a generational difference.”


Though he has a contemporary sensibility, his show is, at its core, something of a throwback. With its sketches, musical performances and wacky games, it’s closer to a proper variety show than anything else in late night. Says Fallon, “We’re totally doing a variety show, since Day 1. ‘The Tonight Show’ would have the Flying Wallendas and the guys spinning plates and then they’d bring out an actress. That’s how it should be, keep the mind moving and be creative.”

A New York guy

Born in Brooklyn to a blue-collar, Irish Catholic family and raised in the small upstate town of Saugerties, Fallon attended college in Albany and has spent nearly all his adult years in New York City. He is about as dyed-in-the-wool as New Yorkers get. Unlike O’Brien, who decamped to the West Coast for his stint on “Tonight,” Fallon is staying put, bringing “Tonight” back to the same studio where it resided for nearly 15 years before Johnny Carson moved it to “beautiful downtown Burbank.”

“I love L.A., I mean it’s beautiful,” he says. “But it was never an option for me.” Fallon does, however, plan to take the show on the road to Los Angeles for several weeks a year.


PHOTOS: Behind the scenes of movies and TV

“Moving back to New York is a real shot in the arm for the show,” adds producer Josh Lieb, formerly of “The Daily Show,” who was hired in October. “Being in the studio where Jack Paar and Johnny shot the show, the halls just echo with this history, it gives us a tremendous momentum.”

While “Tonight” will aim to harness the vitality of New York, Fallon insists it won’t be “New York-centric” because “people in Kansas have to understand the jokes we’re telling.”

Comedy impresario Michaels, who’s overseen “Late Night” since O’Brien came on board, will also be coming with Fallon to “Tonight” as executive producer, marking the further expansion of his fiefdom at NBC. Once “Late Night With Seth Meyers” launches on Feb. 24, he’ll be in charge of some 11.5 hours of weekly programming at the network.


“It’s a tremendous comfort to be working with Lorne Michaels,” says Lieb, describing his boss as an “all-seeing, all-knowing” force.

Conventional wisdom dictates that a move from the hinterlands of 12:30 requires a show to rein in its zanier impulses, but Fallon rejects the notion. “People are twerking at 11:30. I’m not even doing that at 12:30,” he says.

PHOTOS: Celebrities by The Times

Likewise, Lieb insists that the substance of Fallon’s show will remain the same. The most significant creative adjustment has already taken place: Per advice from Leno, Fallon has gradually extended his monologue from about four minutes to roughly twice that length.


Other changes will be mostly superficial. The show’s title will include the “Starring Jimmy Fallon” phrase, not used since the days of Carson. The revamped “Tonight” will open with a sequence directed by Spike Lee and filmed at famous New York locations like Katz’s Deli and Lincoln Center.

Though Fallon, a technology lover, declined the network’s initial offer of a costlier, fancier renovation, he is enthused about his high-tech new 240-seat studio. “If you have a high-definition, flat-screen television, you’ll be so happy, you’ll be like, ‘This is why I paid money for my TV,’” he promises.

Despite his insistence that his show will essentially stay the same, he reserves the right for it to evolve with its audience. “We’ll change with the world, we’ll grow with them. I’m 39 now, I have a baby, I’m grown up. I don’t wear a T-shirt and jeans anymore and hang out in a bar ‘til 4 … every night. I’ve changed. It’s just what happens in life,” Fallon says.

“It’s exciting.”