Observations from The Debut of The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon

I just finished watching Jimmy Fallon’s debut episode (link at bottom), and a lot of thoughts came to mind.

First off, the moment Jimmy Fallon came out, I could instantly see the bags under his eyes; and from experience, I knew it meant he’d been working non-stop with little rest. Obviously. The Tonight Show is a big deal.  It has for decades been, the winner by viewership of late night television.  It is important for the reputation of The Tonight Show, and for the success of Jimmy and NBC’s careers, for him to do well.  But winning isn’t easy.  We saw how difficult late night TV is to win when Conan O’Brien was ousted because he couldn’t keep the ratings: Jimmy knows that this is no joke.

As if that wasn’t enough, late night television is a big deal.  It is an institution that many Americans depend on to get through the day, by giving them something to look forward to at the end of the day, a reliable way to end the day on a happier note.  Late night television doesn’t just serve the viewer, however, it also serves the entertainment industry: countless careers are launched and made on late night television, and it is a critical part of any large scale advertising campaign.  Without ratings, the return on investment won’t be good enough to justify the time spent by the stars to promote their movies, or musicians their music, or artists their art, so they won’t show up.  And if they don’t show up, then we all miss out on the unique opportunity that the Late Night Talk Show medium allows: a conversational setting for celebrities, artists, and public figures to humanize themselves in a more relaxed environment than the high energy, dramatized advertisements or sensationalized red carpet interviews we normally see them in. 


What he said after he came out, completely surprised me.  Jimmy Fallon opened with a very genuine and sincere toned introduction about himself, his background, family, the band The Roots, his side-kick Steve Higgins, and addressed the seriousness of the whole situation directly.  This was an extremely good move.  It shows maturity, composure, and creates rapport with us the viewer.  It also shows insecurity: Jimmy recognizes that if he doesn’t do well, he may lose his job.  As he put it, “I’m your host of The Tonight Show…for now.”  Compare this with Conan O’Brien’s Open

which centered around the self deprecating humor of him forgetting to move to LA from NY.  Self deprecating humor is, at its heart, a way of building confidence. If you are nervous and unsure of yourself, you will use self deprecating humor to deflect attention and give yourself the confidence to be present.  It’s also a mark of strength: it takes confidence to say bad things about yourself, just like it takes confidence to be able to take insults, which is basically what self deprecating humor is: insulting yourself to prove both to yourself and your audience, that you are better than the image you portray.  By opening with confidence, Conan O’Brien is a lot like the opening of Spiderman 3, which opened with the often criticized line “It’s me, Peter Parker. Your friendly neighborhood–you know.”  It assumes that the audience knows who you are, and respects you enough to allow you to be self deprecating–as I’ve learned from trying to build friendships and relationships this way, it doesn’t work.  Jimmy Fallon learned from this mistake, good for him.

The next part of the show, his Monologue, Late Night Superlatives Sketch, and Hip Hop Dance Video with Will Smith, was a showcase of the unique talents that he brings: impressions (voice) and dance.  All were executed very well, which impressed me because juggling all those details, managing and choreographing each of those comedy projects must have been very difficult.  I thought he did a good job and was impressed–and it made me realize just how hard his job must be.  Just last week, hulu had made available Jimmy Fallon’s first ever comedic attempt:


and I remember thinking, wow.  That’s the start of his career.  Skinny, nervous, rushing off the stage immediately after completing his set.  Compare and contrast that with now, he’s gained muscle mass, in a suit, and his excitement and giddiness is very much controlled and intentional.  I then looked up his age, and found that he is now 39 years old.  Twenty-two years it took him to build up his career.

A lot of times we look at someone’s success, and want to emulate it, but we never really realize or appreciate just how long it takes to get there.  22 years.  All the more reason to make sure what you’re doing is what you really want, because you’ll be doing it a long time.  If success is what you want, and it’s going to take a long time regardless of whether it’s something you like or not, you might as well make it out of something you like.

At the end of the show I wasn’t entirely sure what to think, how to articulate what I was feeling, so I took a look at some Facebook trending statuses and links and I came up with Mark Evanier‘s article that said the lack of ad-libbing and spontaneity detracts from the essence of late night television, which is supposed to be imperfect and therefore more relaxed and entertaining.  And I found the words to describe my feelings about this show.

The Job Security of being a Tonight Show Host used to create a relaxed environment for genuine, sincere comedy, which is the most appreciated comedy of all.  A laugh at the expense of a fake character is nice, but a laugh at the expense of someone’s honest character has a richness that can’t be emulated.  Since the oust of Conan and that whole debacle, there is a lot of attention and pressure directed towards Fallon.  As a result, he was too safe with his first show, too planned, too cautious.  Most of the show was spent sending the message: Jimmy will do a good job, he deserves it, he’s great, everyone love Jimmy.  There was a clear a lack of authenticity: he over did his “this is great” reaction, making it too obvious to us viewers that it was scripted, as was the approval and praise of all his guests.

Compare this with Leno’s first guest interview with Billy Crystal: an unscripted event with authentic and honest reactions.

Not only did it have authentic and honest reactions, but it had authentic and honest friendships: you could tell that Leno and Billy were and are friends in real life.  I did not get that impression from Will Smith and U2: they were obviously just the biggest name stars they could find to open the show with, and there’s only so much you can do with star power.  You can attract initial interest with it, but then you have to deliver substance, and substance comes from authenticity.

Themes within Fallon’s opening and show are an emphasis on family (he had several back and forths between his parents as he introduced them to us) and on having a good heart and having good friendships.  Both of these are clearly borrowed from Jay Leno, for whom those are his signature traits.  This further serves to make Jimmy a stranger to us.  The only real moment we had with him was at the start of the show–for the rest of the show, it is all too clear that he is playing a character.

Jimmy, you’re not on SNL any more.  The Tonight Show Host is a person, not a variety of characters.  Show us your real self, that’s the way to go.  Or, perhaps, you can make it work, in which case, good luck.

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