By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 1, 2009
Does this sound familiar? NBC, scrambling to replace a departed star, picks a gangly neophyte to host one of its signature late-night talk shows. The critics descend, declaring the newbie unworthy and predicting his imminent demise. But the new guy hangs in there, and ultimately succeeds.
It could describe Conan O'Brien in 1993, when the then-unknown comedy writer took over David Letterman's pioneering "Late Night" to a nearly convulsive reaction. O'Brien survived, and eventually thrived.
But it could also be a description of Jimmy Fallon in 2009, without the happy ending. As the former "Saturday Night Live" player and almost-movie star takes over "Late Night" from O'Brien at 12:35 a.m. tonight in the first phase of NBC's risky late-night realignment, the question once again is: Can this guy survive?
Is Fallon the next Conan, an often brilliant absurdist who cultivated a loyal following, particularly among the young and the stoned, in the wee hours? Or is he another in a long line of late-night pretenders, such as Alan Thicke, Magic Johnson, Dennis Miller, Joan Rivers and Chevy Chase?
Fallon, 34, is aware of the early buzz, which has ranged from skeptical to practically homicidal. Not that he's letting it bother him. He's confident and loose, he says, and eager to get "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" started. The critics? Bring 'em on: "I think everyone expects to get hit, sure," he says days before his debut. "Which is fine. You gotta do what you gotta do. The question is, can you hang in there and not lose confidence in your humor? That's the key. If everyone's saying, 'You're not funny, you're not funny, you're not funny, you're not funny,' and you lose confidence, eventually you become not funny."
It's a bravura pose from someone circling back to TV after five years of trying to make it in movies. "Saturday Night Live" made the lanky Fallon a star; he was a capable sketch player but really stood out as the co-anchor of the "Weekend Update" segments with Tina Fey. Those bits made Fallon -- necktie askew, spiky hair jutting here and there -- a favorite of the younger viewers he'll need to attract in his new show.
Fallon acknowledges that his post-"SNL" adventures have been a bit rocky. His first film released after he left the show, the comedy "Taxi," was a moderate hit, generating about $69 million in ticket sales worldwide. But his subsequent efforts were steadily weaker. "Fever Pitch," in which he starred with Drew Barrymore as an obsessive Boston Red Sox fan, brought in a solid but unspectacular $50 million in 2005 (big consolation: Fallon met his future wife, producer Nancy Juvonen, 41, during filming).
The next year, Fallon had a secondary role in the little-seen art film "Factory Girl." His most recent movie, "The Year of Getting to Know Us," made in 2007 with Sharon Stone and Lucy Liu, disappeared entirely after a few film festival screenings. Fallon has one last film in post-production, the Barrymore-directed "Whip It!" But as he says matter-of-factly, movies "really didn't work out that great."
Thing is, no matter how much charm the modest and likable Fallon musters for the cameras, "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" could be in for a similarly bumpy ride. NBC itself has helped increase its odds of finding an audience. Come the fall, when NBC's late-hours remodeling is complete, Fallon's show will be the third gabfest on NBC's nightly schedule. Unlike Conan, who merely had to follow the Leno-hosted "Tonight Show," Fallon will be in line behind Leno's new five-nights-a-week talk-variety show from 10 to 11 p.m. and the O'Brien-hosted "Tonight Show" from 11:35 to 12:35 (O'Brien takes over "Tonight" from Leno on June 1; Leno moves to prime time in September).
What's more, unlike Conan, who faced relatively light competition when he started, Fallon faces a talk-show gantlet now. Letterman is still going strong on CBS, as are Jimmy Kimmel on ABC and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on cable's Comedy Central (Fox is also reportedly preparing its own weeknight entry, with Spike Feresten). Fallon's show will also be on directly opposite the engaging "Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson," which had been challenging O'Brien at 12:35.
That's a lot of topical monologues, celebrity blather and musical guests to sit through before Fallon hits his mark each night in the same Rockefeller Plaza studio that once housed Milton Berle's "Texaco Star Theater" and the first 10 seasons of Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show."
If Leno succeeds at 10 p.m., says Peter Lassally, the former executive producer of Carson's and Letterman's talk shows, viewers may bag it early, skipping not just Fallon but all the talk to come. "I've always felt that the competition on a late-night show is not so much your opposition, but it's sleep, people fighting sleep to decide whether they're going to stay through the show or not," says Lassally, now Ferguson's executive producer, in a discussion with reporters in January.
Even Leno has suggested that younger people are going to bed earlier -- good news for him, but not so much for Fallon.
Leno's new show figures to be NBC's biggest gamble. It could potentially save the network tens of millions of dollars in production costs compared with the filmed dramas he's displacing, like "ER" and "Law & Order." But if Leno's ratings sag, it could set off a ruinous chain reaction. Fewer viewers would feed into the late local news on NBC's affiliates, and fewer would stay on for Conan and Fallon. Since NBC would be promoting its news, sports and other programs to fewer and fewer people during those hours, the audience for everything on NBC could fall.
"SNL" creator and "Late Night" Executive Producer Lorne Michaels says he wanted Fallon as Conan's replacement from the day Fallon left "Saturday Night Live" in 2004 (Leno had already announced then that he intended to leave "The Tonight Show"). "Jimmy's built for this kind of show," Michaels says. "He's funny, he's charming, he's got a really good way of connecting with people. And he knows music, movies and TV really well, which is the backbone of these shows."
As for the thicket of late-night talk, Michaels says there's room for everyone, even in a deep recession. "Each will draw its own audience, and each audience is distinct. Jimmy's is going to be younger. I really believe his competition is against himself."
It's hard to argue with Michaels's track record in this sort of thing. He plucked O'Brien, an ex-"SNL" and "Simpsons" writer, from obscurity in 1993 and installed him as Letterman's successor on "Late Night." He also kept O'Brien on track while he was taking a daily whupping in the media ("He was practically day to day for a while there," Michaels says).
Still, it's hard to see exactly what Michaels sees in Fallon, judging from the webisodes Fallon made to promote the show the past few months. Fallon projects some low-key appeal in the videos, but he also seems uneven and a bit tentative at times. He looks almost anxious, for example, answering video questions submitted by fans. Polished he's not.
On the other hand, it's still early. There's an occasional spark of creativity in Fallon's Web shows. In one of those out-of-left-field stunts that made Letterman's and O'Brien's shows almost experimental, Fallon underwent Lasik eye surgery (the better to see cue cards), and taped the whole thing. There he is on the operating slab in one of his videos, eyes taped wide open, like a character from "Clockwork Orange."
To get back in shape to perform before a studio audience again, Fallon has been spending his weekends doing stand-up comedy in clubs around the country (Michaels's idea, as were the Web videos). Hosting a nightly talk show, Fallon says, will be something like doing stand-up, but also a bit like doing "Weekend Update." And something different altogether. His show will have a few unique wrinkles -- a hip-hop house band (the Roots), an innovative set for musical guests, daily digital pieces -- but he acknowledges he's not really reinventing the genre.
"It's like hosting a party," he says. "It's not really so much about you. It's about getting everyone together and having a good time. . . . Ellen DeGeneres gave me some good advice. She said don't be nervous and just be yourself and have fun. Because if it doesn't work, you don't want to have it not work and be nervous."
And Fallon is confident it will work. All he thinks he needs is enough time.
"Jimmy Kimmel has his show, and that's great," he says. "He's got his voice and that's good. Craig Ferguson's got his show and his way of telling a monologue and it's great. Everyone's got their own thing. I think eventually I'll find my own thing. Probably not my first show. But I'll find my thing."