Though it seemed counterintuitive in the insta-opinion era (“hashtag” #mytake, “hashtag” #Fallon), I decided to wait even just a few nights to more fully consider host Jimmy Fallon’s relaunch this week of NBC’s “The Tonight Show.”
Collective online chatter about the show has declared the move to be rather seamless and long overdue. The ratings are strong (with more than 7 million viewers nightly so far, in the honeymoon stage) and the clips (Fallon joining a barbershop quartet to sing R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)”; a brilliant rendition of the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” fastidiously quilted from the archives of NBC anchors Brian Williams and Lester Holt’s newscasts) have gone from merely viral to pandemic.
Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” is apparently all but a smoldering memory in Burbank now. Three nights in, Fallon’s show is an effervescent and even hyperactive expression of adolescent joy, working overtime (on an after-Olympics delay) to please anyone who happens to watch it, whether as a broadcast endeavor or as a social-network GIF/digestif.
This “Tonight Show” is also resolutely similar to the “Late Night” show Fallon had been doing in the 12:35 slot after Leno, the look and feel of which, if memory serves, evolved as a response to a galling discovery in Fallon’s earliest episodes: For all his talents as a performer, the host was and mostly still is terrible at interviewing people.
He is fawning, stuttering, easily distracted and smarmy beyond the call of the duty; he is always telling his guests that their latest whatever (movie, TV show, record, White House initiative) was great, amazing, just amazing, great, so great.
That’s how Fallon rolls. His is not to question, but to revel. From the moment he took the stage Monday and waved hello to his parents in the audience, Fallon has spent the week underlining the fact that he is the very bestest little boy ever, who wants nothing more than to make you even just half as happy watching “The Tonight Show” as he is to be on it. He laughs too hard at his guests’ light anecdotes (he doubles over in laughter at just about anything) and is so much more in his element when they indulge him in a planned comedic bit rather than in a conversation.
In 2014, this is not a crime by any stretch. We prize positivity and energy above almost any human characteristics these days, which means that “The Tonight Show” is unfortunately no longer looked at as a venue for inquiry or difficulty or doubt. On Fallon’s stage, we are all essentially Muppet versions of the people we used to be.
That’s mostly a win-win for the audience, as when guest Kristen Wiig came from behind Fallon’s stripey blue (vaguely Johnny Carson-esque) stage curtains Wednesday dressed as British teen idol Harry Styles and tried to stay in a character for whom she (seemingly) has no clue about in the slightest. Or when Bradley Cooper, after the briefest “American Hustle”-related chit-chat in the same episode, accepted Fallon’s invitation to abandon the guest chair/desk scenario and cross the stage to play a game of charades with musical guest Tim McGraw and a “surprise” fourth guest, actress Emma Thompson.
“The Tonight Show” is now much more of a recess playground than it has ever been. In a faint way, it is building on Carson’s tradition of hosting a show that exists chiefly to celebrate showbiz, a safe space for stars in the club. (Speaking of which, I have taken delight in Joan Rivers’s embittered victory lap around the infotainment sphere after she made a brief cameo in Fallon’s first episode Monday night; once Carson’s substitute host, Rivers has been exiled from “Tonight” since she attempted to launch her own late-night talk show in 1986 — a ban that extended far too long through Leno’s reign.)
Jerry Seinfeld, who came on the show Tuesday night for a surprisingly sharp, kids-get-off-my-lawn dose of his current stand-up material, sat on Fallon’s couch and observed how this iteration of “The Tonight Show” is like a science project under glass. Over the next 20 or 30 years, Seinfeld surmised, we can watch as the show chips away at Fallon’s preternatural vim and verve; we can see if he gets divorced or psychologically and/or sexually scandalized; we will be able to see what he looks like, Seinfeld said, after “600,000 consecutive hours of ‘Thank-You Notes’ and Justin Timberlake song parodies.”
Fallon laughed and laughed at this. It’s his only response to any hint of darkness, for he is a man who will always, always supply a “just kidding” to the meanest jokes and asides, which are never that mean and never too far aside.
Not so on other networks, and if they’re smart, Fallon’s competitors will amp up their talents for cynicism and a style of pushback that extends beyond parody. While Fallon goofs off, David Letterman can remain a sure spot for politicians to lightheartedly engage popular culture and repair mixed messages, especially during a campaign season, without having to extend their comedy chops beyond reading a Top Ten list. (Not everyone, after all, can Slow Jam the News, Fallon-style.)
If he has any response to Fallon’s debut at all, Letterman would do well to relocate and hone his wry and contrary side, his Midwestern grip on irony. After all, Fallon is the host who waves to his parents in the audience; Letterman is the one who sent his mom to cover the Lillehammer Olympics and then made endearing fun of her broadcasting ineptitude.
For keen contrast to Fallon you can’t do much better than ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” the show that stands to gain most when people tire of the Lorne Michaels/“Saturday Night Live” clubhouse feel that has taken over “The Tonight Show.” At 46, Kimmel is closest in age to Fallon (who is 39), and yet Kimmel’s idea of immaturity and irreverence seems so much more, well, adult. Part of it is that Kimmel is just better and more precise with his darts.
Fallon belongs to the prevailing every-kid-gets-a-trophy mind-set, while Kimmel hasn’t forgotten that those kids sometimes still need a wedgie. Kimmel’s show is also just as adroit as Fallon’s, if not more so, at harnessing the possibilities of the Internet. Kimmel is willing to displease his audience by fooling them with fake viral videos. He likes to be sneaky and cynical. Where Fallon likes to let everyone in on the joke, Kimmel is enthralled by hoax and not afraid of pouring too much salt.
What remains in all this is a surfeit of choice, which, once the hype dies off, becomes a crowded and redundant field of men behind desks and the usual cycle of guests. Even with so many late-night talk shows, it is still possible to tune them all out in favor of a “Friends” rerun or HGTV’s “Property Brothers.” If anything interesting happens on a late-night talk show, it will be clipped and ready and waiting for you the minute you pick up your phone the next morning.
But back to Fallon, in a suitably upbeat way: He’s good at this job and works a lot harder than he has to. He has the right band (the Roots, who went a bit “Electric Company” funk on the new theme song) and the right balance. Fallon complies, respectfully and skillfully, with “The Tonight Show’s” apparently inviolable formats (the opening monologue of jokes; the fact that at least part of the show must be conducted from his desk) as a bridge to the more goofy and innovative sketch comedy he prefers. He keeps looking for ways to delight us, surprise us. It can so easily stray into irritation — and the yawning brought on by all the fawning — but you can’t really fault the guy for trying to send people to bed happy.
(one hour) weeknights on NBC. (Returns to its regular 11:35 p.m. time slot on Monday.)