By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
At one point in the premiere of his new late-night talk show, it sounded as if Jimmy Fallon muttered "I'm lost" under his breath. He meant he'd come momentarily undone, but the whole show had an unfortunate aura of disconnect. It didn't seem to have attitude, direction or an identifiable style -- a newborn already suffering an identity crisis.
It did have a few laughs, however -- and that's nothing to snicker at. And it boasted high-octane opening-night guests Robert De Niro and Justin Timberlake. As Fallon said too often, "Wow."
Comparisons with Fallon's predecessor in the time slot, the great Conan O'Brien (who appeared in a strangely flat taped sketch), are inevitable. O'Brien's first week as host of "Late Night" is commonly described as "rocky," and yet when he and his gang burst onto the air in 1993, they were armed with many more novel ideas than Fallon and company unveiled in their debut on NBC late Monday.
In the interest of being positive, the show's good points ought to be noted right off. There was, for one thing, a very handsome hardwood floor -- or maybe a faux hardwood floor -- on which Fallon and guests could cavort. And Fallon himself remains nothing if not personable, the kind of guy you might not mind sitting next to on a long bus ride.
As could be expected with any new offering in a field as overplowed as talk shows, this one arrived needing plenty of work -- but, since Lorne Michaels is executive producer, in very safe and talented hands.
As a star of NBC's "Saturday Night Live," breeding ground for exceptional talent, Fallon displayed an irresistible, boyish charm and a gift for satirical mimicry. The boyish charm seems to have been intentionally stifled; Fallon hosted the premiere dressed like Alfred Hitchcock. He looked stiff rather than limber, and all but shackled to the smallish desk at which he sat.
But there were no major glitches or fumbles as the hour bumped along, and though not a brilliant monologuist, Fallon handled the opening jokes well, ending the monologue by "slow-jamming the news" with help from his house band, the Roots (whom he failed to introduce individually). Slow-jamming meant reciting an item about Nancy Pelosi in a suggestive, mock-sexy way, as in "You can't rush my stimulus, baby."
Bits involving the studio audience were less successful. A few members were invited to come onstage and play "Lick It for Ten," wherein the contestant licked part of a lawn mower or goldfish bowl for a $10 bill that Fallon produced from his wallet. A spoofy taped segment about one of the show's "target demographics" -- "blond mothers from Connecticut" -- played like an "SNL" sketch that had died in dress rehearsal.
De Niro stayed for two segments and played along with some jokey scripted comedy, but Fallon rushed through it as if the faster he went, the less likely any shortcomings would be noticed. Timberlake's half-danced entrance seemed like part of a parody on the old, immortal "SCTV" show: New Age showbiz phoniness to replace the kind of stuff Bob Hope and Dean Martin used to do in talk-show appearances.
But however many aspects of the program and its host can be criticized, Fallon still returned to the air riding a wave of goodwill and, after weeks of webisodic testing on the Internet, demonstrated a certain comfort in the role. The show is broadcast from historic Studio 6B in Rockefeller Center, not used in years but in its day home to, among other shows, Jack Paar's "Tonight Show," proof that any genre of anything can produce a masterpiece.
Fallon is far from such stature, but though his opening night had disappointments, none was crushing or looked potentially fatal. Once Fallon relaxes, hunkers down and lightens up, the new "Late Night" could win over many a semiconscious heart and mind.