There is this impulse among some people to hunt down old institutions and mount them on the wall from time to time, like lumbering relics. Right now, late night television is in the cross-hairs - as many pontificate about its waning relevancy at the dawn of this new era – but while the ratings may be down, these shows still have cultural resonance thanks to viral video clips and, for some, the classic desire to go to bed with a bit of lightness after a tough day.
Late night isn’t dying, it’s just changing a little, and while Jimmy Fallon’s first Tonight Show failed to completely convey the full breadth of what his version of the legendary late-night talker will look like – thanks to a premiere that was far too aware of its newness – Fallon did adroitly show off why he is the right man for the job, and why many people will be talking about him tomorrow.
Before we get to what Fallon did right (and wrong) last night, lets talk about the bells and whistles of the new set and what has changed between Fallon’s old Late Night series and his new Tonight Show.
Intimate with an abundance of wood decor (including what looks like a 3D wood sculpture of the New York skyline behind the host’s desk) and a classy royal blue curtain, Fallon’s new set looks a bit like a cross between his old one and something that would have fit in during the 1970s and 1960s, when the show was last in New York. This is a direct contrast to the massive Burbank stage that Fallon’s predecessor, Jay Leno, used and it is also much more sparse than the stage that Conan O’Brien used in his brief time as Tonight Show host; but if a smaller space worked for Fallon before, why not stick with a winning formula?
As for the new show theme song and the opener, Fallon managed to blend the sound and feel of his now “old” Late Night opener with a bit of newness and a resounding undertone that sounded like The Roots had spent too much time listening to Bill Conti’s “Goona Fly Now”. As Fallon pointed out during the show, the opening segment is a “Spike Lee joint”.
Past the opener, we got not one but two starts from Fallon as he somewhat nervously stepped out from behind the curtain to quite literally introduce himself to the 11:35 hour (or rather, the midnight hour this week thanks to the Olympics). In that introduction, we learned about Fallon’s life, met his parents, learned what monologues are for – a moment that may have been the show’s worst, in that it assumed that viewers had never seen a late night show before – and began to wonder when the actual “show” would start. Once it did, there was an undeniable awkwardness on display when Fallon went back behind the curtain before re-emerging to deliver a brief Olympic heavy monologue that was uplifted by a successful port of the “Superlatives” gag from Late Night and Fallon’s able off-the-cuff impressions.
Was Fallon too easily convinced that six seasons on Saturday Night Live, just shy of 1,000 episodes on Late Night and a massive promotional campaign had somehow failed to convey to the audience that he was not some kid off of a bus or an unproven heir? Ultimately it doesn’t matter, since this is not something that will be repeated, but for those who were hoping Fallon would hit the ground running, the first few minutes were mostly spent twiddling thumbs, especially after the monologue was followed by a weird and seemingly endless cavalcade of random big stars that showed up to hand Fallon money.
Despite the dripping uselessness of these cameos, though, two did stand out: Stephen Colbert, who had some fun with a tedious walk-through thanks to his bucket of pennies and the return of Joan Rivers to The Tonight Show almost thirty years after her last appearance. A former regular guest host during Johnny Carson’s term, Rivers had sparked a feud with Carson due to her decision to leave his side for a shot at her own show on FOX. Bringing her on was an impactful and classy move by Fallon.
Speaking of impactful moves, “The Evolution of Hip Hop Dancing” certainly fits the bill. A bit of viral video click bait that saw Fallon in overalls dancing beside Will Smith (the first guest, Smith would follow his dance moves with a bit of ho-hum unrelatable chatter about skydiving in Dubai later in the show), the bit signaled to Fallon fans that it was okay to exhale.
While “The Evolution of Hip Hop Dancing” is not as inspired as Fallon’s on-going “History of Rap” bits with Justin Timberlake, the segment hit the mark, quickly gaining trend status on twitter while also standing out as a commodity that nobody in Fallon’s new (or old) neighborhood can match. Despite the five minutes of “Hi, how are you?”, this sketch did the best job of introducing Jimmy Fallon to those who were unfamiliar. Like it or not, silly humor like this is going to be the backbone of the new Tonight Show and it could ultimately help to establish the show as a force with a new audience that may give it a fuller look if more videos like these circulate the web.
Coming in second? Live music, and Fallon certainly aimed for an epic and buzzworthy moment with U2 – the kind that, once again, will get people talking the next day – who played the song “Invisible” on the roof of 30 Rock with a far smaller police presence than the band encountered in Los Angeles during the music video for “Where the Streets Have No Name” in 1987.
Shifting gears, the band later went acoustic to sing their Oscar nominated song “Ordinary Love” to close out the show in a moment that, while not at all impromptu, felt organic and fun.
As The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon develops and evolves, it seems likely that “organic” and “fun” will be things that the show aspires to. How long will it take to fully get where it needs to go? The series premiere seems to indicate that the capacity is certainly there and that the Late Night sensibility didn’t get lost in the move, but for now, Fallon just needs to move past the pageantry of the new show, the new set, and the new expectations and simply do what he ultimately did last night despite the first episode’s minor failings – he needs to keep giving people a reason to tune in next time.
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon airs weeknights (midnight for now, 11:35pm after the Olympics) on NBC.