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The TBTS Progress Report: Late Night With Jimmy Fallon

July 21, 2009

When a fresh-faced Jimmy Fallon joined an ailing Saturday Night Live in 1998, he filled a unique niche that hadn’t really been seen in some time: the really young guy. Though he was 24, he brought a youthful naiveté to the proceedings, and his age often showed as he’d break down giggling uncontrollably during more than an acceptable few sketches. Here was the newbie sandwiched among seasoned professionals like the Upright Citizens’ Brigade’s Amy Poehler and Horatio Sanz, the Groundlings’ Will Ferrell and Second City’s Tim Meadows. He was the greenhorn. The goofy, dorky Anthony Michael Hall for a new generation.

Fallon fell into an easy niche — never really busting out initially, remaining the easy-going, “we’re all laughing together at this” guy. The guy seemingly thrilled just to be there. And though his acting chops may have needed some work (again, dropping the fourth wall on countless sketches with his snickering), he definitely had a charismatic, everyman quality to him. Like that guy you know that’s just fun to hang out and have some beers with.

That’s why it really wasn’t that much of a stretch for Fallon to inherit the Late Night mantle from Conan O’Brien, who himself inherited the show from the great David Letterman. Conan, after all, had many of the same absurdist qualities as Letterman, and perpetuated the franchise with a cerebral, absurdist sense of humor. Likewise, Fallon takes his cue from one of Conan’s signature qualities — the accessible, down-to-earth host.  It seemed a natural fit for Fallon, who had struggled with film (Taxi, Fever Pitch), to try his hand at something that let him just…be himself.

Debuting in early March, Fallon’s early efforts at Late Night seemed shaky at best. Saddling himself with Robert Deniro as a first guest (notoriously known for being one of the worst interviewees in the industry), he sidestepped his way through his first couple of weeks, unsure of his footing. But gradually, as he seemed to become more comfortable in the role, it seemed to fit him better.

Four and a half months later, Fallon seems to be getting the hang of things. And if Letterman targeted bored twenty-somethings, and Conan targeted smart twenty-somethings, Fallon is targeting trendy, tech-savvy twenty-somethings. Recurring bits revolving around Twitter and Facebook tap into a new generation of late-nighters, with setpieces based around new iPhone applications, greenscreens and other assorted digital media. Fallon even occasionally enlists his audience to join with him in an event he calls a “shared experience” — the network television equivalent of the modern-day flashmob — which sees his followers all donning mullet wigs or firing nerf darts at someone playing jenga. Most headline-guests spend one segment interviewed by Fallon, and the second interacting with him in some way (i.e., when Fallon recently beat Tiger Woods at Wii’s Tiger Woods Golf, or when he challenged Betty White to beer pong).

Fallon truly seems to have his finger on the pulse of what’s ridiculously trendy, and does a nice job of exploiting those trends. His every-Monday mini-series Seventh Floor West is a Hills-esque takeoff that’s definitely worth spending some time with (click the link for episodes), and he’s surrounded himself with some solid players — house band The Roots, who take part in the proceedings, and head writer A.D. Miles, a veteran of NYC’s alternative comedy scene — who certainly don’t hurt Fallon’s chances.

As a host, Fallon still seems somewhat awkward; but these days, that’s okay. Because he’s likeable. He may still be leagues beneath Letterman or Conan, but kudos to him for the nerve to find his own way and his own audience. He’s growing, becoming stronger each night, and is starting to look genuinely comfortable. What began as a host seemingly intimidated by his guests has become a case of a host perfectly at ease joking and teasing with his hollywood peers, which is actually a rather fresh way of hosting a network talker. Late Night may not be in the pantheon yet, but give Fallon a chance. He may surprise you.

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2 Comments
  1. Tim permalink
    July 21, 2009 6:49 pm

    Totally agree with this. Fallon has become pretty good at the job, but he is at his best when he has an SNL alum on, IMO. And honestly… as a lifelong Conan fan, it pains me to say this, but Late Night has become much more watchable than the Tonight Show. Something just isn’t clicking on The Tonight Show. Maybe it’s the entended opening monologue, which cuts out an extra sketch, but something just isn’t right. I say bring back Joel Goddard and put Andy back on the couch, where he belongs.

    /tangent

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