An understandably more upbeat occasion than Thursday night’s Tonight Show finale, the last Late Night with Jimmy Fallon felt like a graduation party, with a bit of sentimentality for what was about to be left behind and a lot of excitement for what lays ahead as Fallon prepares to host The Tonight Show when it returns on February 17th.
However, despite Andy Samberg’s presence as Fallon’s last guest and the dynamic host’s book-ended musical performances (where he sat in with Buckwheat Zydeco at the beginning of the show and The Muppets at the end), the most memorable moments from Fallon’s Late Night exit were the ones that were the most reflective.
From his retelling of the “NBC Pipes” story and his intimate chat with sidekick and friend Steve Higgins about their time on the show, Fallon’s last Late Night hit all the right notes before the show ended with Fallon metaphorically moving the “party” over to the historic studio 6B (where Johnny Carson filmed the Tonight Show).
The question is, what kind of party will The Tonight Show be when Fallon returns the show to its New York birthplace on February 17th?
Like anyone that is about to take on a major challenge, Fallon has surely been inundated with well-meaning advice – Fallon even took a page out of Jay Leno’s playbook, repeating the same gag that Leno had used on his last Tonight Show to showcase “celebrity friends” (including Miley Cyrus, who appeared in both Leno and Fallon’s clips) offering advice. The best of those helpful messages? Judd Apatow’s shout about not changing a thing.
Fallon will change at least one thing, elongating his monologue thanks to a tip from outgoing Tonight Show host Jay Leno, who said at the TCA’s that “people are busy” and that they “may have missed the news, so you have to give them a complete view of the news.” Whether people need to get their news from the Tonight Show at a time when people are increasingly connected is up for discussion, but apart from that change, Fallon has sounded confident about not altering his comedic style for his new job.
Here’s Fallon in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times when he was asked about the difference between the 11:35 time-slot and the 12:35 time-slot.
“You can do probably weirder stuff. There’s less people watching, so you can probably get away with more stuff. 11:30 is an hour earlier, so hopefully my parents will watch now. We’re going to do the same show we have been doing. I figure in my head we’re kind of doing the Tonight Show now, it’s just no one knows it.”
Weirder stuff isn’t really something that needs to concern Fallon. One could certainly say that his Late Night predecessors David Letterman and Conan O’Brien both wielded the weird to get their laughs, but Fallon has gotten his by embracing the silly over the surreal. Is that a style that will automatically appeal to all of Leno’s four million viewers? Honestly, it’s impossible to say.
Fallon can’t be Leno, but he can be the right fit for his old job and he can take the show in a direction that welcomes his fans and Leno’s fans while honoring both the spirit of The Tonight Show and what got him to this point. The best part? Fallon can do that without changing his style, and that’s what makes him so right for the job.
As for Seth Meyers, Fallon’s replacement and the new host of Late Night, right now we really have no idea what he’s going to do. Late Night has its own vaunted history that will need to be respected and also ignored. Meyers has to be his own man as much as Fallon does.
Luckily, both are being shepherded by Lorne Michaels and the two hosts have contrasting styles, but Fallon and Meyers’ shared geographic proximity could either be a hindrance or a help to Late Night in terms of guest booking. The negative is that The Tonight Show will have priority, but Meyers is going to face the same kind of challenge that David Letterman had when he opened the Late Night series back in the ’80s.
Created because Johnny Carson didn’t want NBC running “Best of” episodes of The Tonight Show on weekends, Late Night was co-produced by Carson’s company and given a set criteria with regard to the ways that the show had to behave differently than Carson’s Tonight Show. We all know that Letterman danced on the fringes with his show, but while Meyers seems a bit more buttoned up, he could create something quite singular with this platform and these so called restrictions – but there’s also a chance that he might not.
That’s what makes this transformative moment in late night history so exciting and it’s why late night fans are so very eager to see these two comics take on these new challenges and guide the evolving legacies of their respective institutions.
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon premieres Monday, February 17th on NBC @11:35pm. Late Night with Seth Meyers premieres Monday, February 24th on NBC @12:35am.