Are you going to watch Jimmy Fallon tonight? The former SNL Weekend Update anchor launches Late Night with Jimmy Fallon at 12:35 a.m. on NBC and A. With Conan O’Brien having vacated this slot two weeks ago, Fallon now has just a few months to establish a following before O’Brien steals his thunder again, taking over the Tonight Show in June. Then the big change happens in August when Jay Leno muscles into NBC’s primtime lineup weeknights at 10.
In January at the TCA Winter press tour, Craig Ferguson magnanimously asked TV critics to give the kid a month before we start reviewing his timeslot rival. That’s not going to happen, but Ferguson’s point is taken. The only way to be any good at this late night hosting job is to do it over and over and over again. O’Brien just concluded a run of 2,725 shows. Letterman is closing in on 5000. To judge Fallon on one hour would not be right.
Still, it is fair to comment on a first impression and that is what I’ll do. Then, sure, in a month or so, I’ll weigh in with a more critical view of the new Late Night.
I’m actually kind of optimistic about Fallon’s chances. At 34, he has to at least bring a new, younger energy to this deal. He is personable and funny on his feet, as he demonstrated in January’s press tour scrum.
O’Brien’s long time NBC publicist, Marc Liepis–somebody who has helped me out countless times on assignments over the years–did not want to uproot his family and move to Los Angeles (where O’Brien’s new Tonight Show will be based). Lucky Liepis is now a producer on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and told me in January to expect plenty of off-site nuttiness, with Fallon roaming the streets of Manhattan and even deep into the boroughs looking for laughs. That’s good, as Letterman has kind of abandoned the kind of Broadway ambush stunts he used to pull with his Hello Deli patsy Rupert Gee.
Fallon has been working the street beat for months on latenightwithjimmyfallon.com, where his four minute webisodes have provided a tantalizing glimpse into what viewers can expect once Late Night hits the air in the wee hours tonight.
Still, Fallon will have his work cut out for him. Ferguson has made great gains in late night, beating O’Brien as recently as three weeks ago in the ratings. The whole late night deal is up for grabs. Look for Fallon to open big, at least, especially with Justin Timberlake, Robert De Niro and Van Morrison guesting tonight.
I wish I could link to the Jimmy Fallon Starweek cover story I wrote this weekend but, alas, you still can’t access Starweek content online. Here are excerpts below:
If Fallon was feeling the pressure last month at press tour, he wasn’t showing it. He was pumped about the show and excited to be in a historic part of Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center. His studio, 6B, across the hall from O’Brien and David Letterman’s narrower 6A, was the original New York home of Johnny Carson’s Tonight’s Show as well as Jack Paar’s Tonight base in the ‘50s and early ‘60s.
The space will accommodate a larger studio audience as well as a larger stage area. “We can get a circus in there if we want,” says Fallon, who also plans to take full advantage of all New York has to offer.
The 34-year-old comedian has been getting up to speed since December by shooting nightly, three or four minute Late Night webisodes at latenightwithjimmyfallon.com. That’s where he introduced his band (hip hop Grammy winners The Roots), provided a tour of the studio and even let viewers witness his laser eye surgery in December. The better to see the cue cards, says Fallon, who was very happy with the procedure.
It’s not the only way Fallon has taken advantage of new media in his run up to late night. He’s used Facebook and Twitter to get the word out through social networking. His show will be 100% digital, with nothing taped. He might even grab a few monologue jokes in real time via text messages. “We’re experimenting with how to be interactive with our show,” he says. In a recent webisode, he was seen attending a sci-fi convention. Across the street was an adult entertainment expo. “I twittered and asked people to give me any double entendre jokes,” he says. “I got 150 of them. Pretty good ones, actually. One guy said, ‘Tron Jeremy.’ ‘If I get a coupon do I get double the RAM?’ The jokes were sent to me in seconds.”
Fallon’s former SNL pals have no doubt that he’ll score in late night. Head writer Seth Meyers, who took over Fallon’s Weekend Update seat, says “the one thing you can’t tell about any of our cast members from only watching them on our show is knowing how fast they are on their feet, and Jimmy is incredibly quick on his feet, incredibly personable and charismatic, makes people feel at ease, and I feel that those are all fields that are really necessary for a talk show host.” Adds, Horatio Sanz, “He’s really talented, works hard and he’ll make the show work.”
Fallon was handpicked by Canadian-born SNL boss Lorne Michaels to succeed O’Brien. “He’s my No. 1 guy,” says Fallon of Michaels. “I trust him more than anybody.” Michaels stunned the industry back in 1992 when he picked O’Brien—then known mainly as a Simpsons writer and producer—to step in a fill David Letterman’s giant shoes at Late Night. After a shaky start and a critical roasting, O’Brien settled in to a dominant, 2000-plus show run in late night before capturing the Tonight Show prize.
Now it’s Fallon’s turn to make Michaels look like a genius. He has to overcome some bad karma from his post-SNL film career, which stalled after duds Fever Pitch and Taxi. Even those experiences weren’t all bad for the New York native. The good thing that came out of Fever Pitch was an introduction to co-star Drew Barrymore’s producer partner Nancy Juvonen, who became Fallon’s wife in 2007.
Asked what advice his predecessor gave him to gear up for the Late Night gig, Fallon said O’Brien offered the following: “The more you do it the more you learn, the better you’re going to get.” He got the following tip from Stephen Colbert, “who gave me great advice that Conan gave him that Johnny Carson gave Conan, which was ‘with this show, you’re going to use everything you’ve ever known.’”