The other day on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy performed a Christmas tune with Dee Snider (of Twisted Sister fame) and his Late Night band, which just happens to be the fabulous Roots. He sang and played his guitar alongside some amazing talent, and did just what he seems to do flawlessly every night: have a genuinely good time with his guests, his show crew, and his audience. I've been watching for about six or eight months, around the time I decided he deserved a second chance. When his show debuted in March of 2009, I watched intermittently for a few weeks, and the poor guy was just getting into the role. He was, well, nervous. Still in the experimental phase. Barely in the existence phase, so I don't blame him, but I just couldn't watch. Give the guy a year, and he has revolutionized what I expect from a late night talk show.
Jimmy performing music numbers and stand-alone skits has done far more than give him a niche with the younger, Youtube-watching crowd who can tune in to those nuggets days and weeks later; he has made Late Night a place for his larger collection of talents. Jay Leno singing the "original lyrics" to "Yesterday" by the Beatles with Paul McCartney himself? Never. Jimmy pulled it off with giddiness and pure joy in his performance.
He does country music, he does classic Neil Young, he does Canadian soap operas. He has brought simple things like charades and other silly games onto the set, as well as newer things like Twitter hashtags (that often trend nationally and sometimes worldwide when he starts them) and "Slow Jammin' the News" with the Roots, in which the news is done, yes, slow-jam style. Brilliant.
Besides Jimmy's wide array of comedic, musical, and acting talents that he uses to infuse the show with his personality, he is refreshingly candid and relaxed with guests. And most of all, he laughs, so much that it is clear he is just darn enjoying himself. He knows his time slot, he knows its late, and he enjoys giving people irreverent and fresh stuff. He's also the first to admit that if people want to see the show, they'll watch it online or TiVo it (which gave him a neutral position in the feud that erupted at NBC when Conan was given the ultimatum to push the Tonight Show to 12:05 or leave it). With the things he's doing on Late Night, I rarely miss an episode now, especially in an era when I am tired of the same stale acts on other late night television, with the predictable victims who take it on the chin for the sake of comedy.
With my addiction in fairly advanced stages, New York magazine published an article on Jimmy Fallon and the show he has molded into his own, whose title summed up much of my sentiment on the whole late night matter: "Mr. Sunshine: Jimmy Fallon's Good Humor," by Adam Sternbergh (November 7, 2010). What Sternbergh points out is that Fallon's humor doesn't have the victims that even bits like Jaywalking have on the Tonight Show. He's not snarky, and doesn't harp on the negative or tell jokes condescendingly. He takes a sillier approach, and that has made all the difference.
[Michael] Shoemaker [Late Night's producer] remembers an early struggle, in the first months, to figure out exactly how to joke about the then-ubiquitous Susan Boyle. “Everyone else was talking about how she looked or her fifteen minutes of fame,” he says. Letterman, for example, did a top-ten list of “Worst Summer Jobs,” which included “Susan Boyle’s groomer.” Jon Stewart joked that Boyle looked like Labour’s Gordon Brown in drag. “But I really liked her video,” says Fallon, and Shoemaker points out, “People were watching it in our office with tears in their eyes.” So instead, they wrote a sketch in which watching Boyle’s video could salve any affliction, including Fallon’s grumpy mood, a cancellation by Brangelina, news of an unwanted pregnancy, a zombie attack, roaches, snakes, and a bloody arm amputated by a broken copy machine. It was funny, inventive, and left Boyle unscathed. “We watched it and said, That’s it,” Shoemaker says. “That’s what our show is about.”
This is exactly what I have been craving in my late night television companion, a person who spends weeknights with me as I'm finishing homework or working on a project or heading off to bed. It's important that I giggle, and I can only laugh at crude sex jokes a few times before I turn the channel. (And I only have about ten to chose from.) Jimmy's show takes cues from many comedic inspirations, coming together in totally its own marvelous concoction, not only keeping it victimless but keeping the viewer guessing each night what will happen on the show. And the Roots is by far the best late night band out there, just classic. Perfect combination, all around. Says the article:
Late Night owes as much to the antic energy of The Muppet Show as it does to Johnny Carson. A lot of Fallon’s in-studio bits—like one called “Models & Buckets,” in which audience members have mystery substances poured onto their heads by models—wouldn’t feel out of place on Nickelodeon. “I’m on so late I’m definitely the last seconds of anyone’s attention,” says Fallon. “So I just want to give them something dumb to laugh at, so they go, ‘That’s funny,’ then fall asleep.”
Sternbergh's article brought home for me how many things Fallon is doing right, and while he was a surprise choice for the chair back in 2008, he's adapted brilliantly to the position and continues to impress me, and give me those deep-belly outbursts. I, for one, would absolutely love to see him take over Leno's chair someday, the sooner the better. I cannot begin to describe how many more ways he is plugged into the twenty-somthings than anyone else. (Well, Craig Ferguson is another great one. Shame they're on at the same time.) And really, what age group isn't in the mood for some light-hearted comedy and games and musical performances these days? Yes, please, Jimmy.
Update: In 2013, GQ published this article, giving Fallon the title of "King of Late Night Television." I totally agreed, back in 2010. I still agree, in March 2013.