Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Tonight Show’ is One Year Old… and I was Wrong About the Show

Jimmy Fallon’s tenure on The Tonight Show turned one year old this week and, while I’ve been critical of the host and the show in the past, I have to admit he’s doing something right. He’s easily the highest rated show going, especially in the coveted 18-49 demographic. So, if he’s not serving up my cup of tea, that’s a me problem and not a Jimmy problem, right? Right.

I’ll get to the good parts in a minute, but first let me get the bad out of the way. A year later (and after 5 years as host of Late Night), Jimmy remains a terrible interviewer. His boyish innocence and puppy-like enthusiasm probably make him a publicist’s dream, but to actually watch him gushing over every guest is kind of unbearable to those of us with at least a single cynical bone left in our bodies.

His monologues aren’t his finest hour either. Even back in his Saturday Night Live days, Jimmy was always at his best bouncing off the other cast rather than delivering punchlines.

Luckily, The Tonight Show plays to Fallon’s strengths, namely that innocence and enthusiasm. While on the surface it has all the trappings of a traditional late night talk show – the curtain, the monologue, the band, the desk, the guests – Fallon leaves his imprint on Tonight in the margins in between. These are the moments that go viral on YouTube and no doubt help drive the ratings of the show. Instead of talking at the water cooler about what Carson did the night before, people share YouTube videos with their friends on social media. This is the very audience all TV networks want to attract and this is the audience that Fallon seems to have a knack for appealing to. A good example is a bit from the show’s first week on the air which quickly went viral and remains one of the show’s most popular moments… though in light of the recent bad news with Brian Williams, it plays a little differently than it did then:

Tellingly, moments like this have more to do with the show’s writing than they do Fallon himself. Where Johnny Carson’s version of The Tonight Show and even more so David Letterman’s versions of Late Night and The Late Show all depended mightily on the personality of their hosts, Jimmy is less assertive. He’s more a conduit for a sense of goofiness and play that lets celebrities shine if they choose to play along. A good example is the Lip Sync Battles he does with a number of willing guests. The first notable one was Emma Stone:

This is such a popular YouTube-able feature, it’s getting its own show. And what makes it work is the willingness of a popular celebrity to let his or her hair down and play along as though we’re all at the same sleepover at Jimmy’s house. To his credit, Fallon creates the welcome environment, but audiences tune in to see the celebrity “friends.” And I don’t mean that as a criticism, per se. These shows have always been about showcasing celebrities and whatever project it is they’re currently selling.

This idea of a sleepover with parlor games often carries over into (or takes the place of) traditional interviews which we’ve already established Fallon sucks at. Instead of engaging guests with questions, Fallon plays games with them. Here he is in a memorable bit with Jennifer Lawrence that doesn’t tell us much about Lawrence or what she’s up to, but gives her a chance to show her personality and make us feel like we’re all buddies.

When I was a kid, getting to stay up late enough to watch The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson made me feel like I was doing stuff my parents did. They smoked and told jokes I didn’t get and I loved every minute of it. In high school, staying up to watch Late Night with David Letterman was doing something my parents hated. The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon feels very different. Like all of pop culture for the last 30 years, it’s more interested in what the kids are doing. Maybe it’s just because I’m my parents’ age now, but I doubt it. It’s a different world now.

I have to admit, I bristle at a lot of this stuff. Whereas Letterman was creating a weird sort of pop art that wasn’t just a reflection of his times, it actively shaped them, Fallon feels like the ultimate extension of the massive publicity machine that drives so much of TV. Letterman mocked celebrity while Fallon nurtures it and, even more importantly, allows us the audience to feel like we’re a part of it. It’s a lie, but it’s a comforting, social-media-friendly lie and Fallon is able to pull it off without a trace of cynicism or irony. Maybe that’s his gift. And really, what’s wrong with that?

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