February 23, 2014

The Tonight Show with Fallon and Friends

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After a 42 year residence in Burbank, California, The Tonight Show has finally returned to its home in 30 Rock’s Studio 6B with the happy-go-lucky Jimmy Fallon at its helm. Surrounded by his venerable sidekick, Steve Higgins, and the best late-night band, The Roots, Jimmy came right into his own despite the pressures of such a large and important franchise. The opening sequence, directed by Spike Lee, showcases the new (well, technically old) hometown with calculated cool. The NYC montage, paired with the new set design by Eugene Lee sparkling under the heavy lights, makes it apparent that the new Tonight Show is about more than just a hip new host: it is about the city itself.

The Tonight Show is a staple of American late night programming. It was the first. It creates and sustains careers in show business. It puts America to sleep (in a good way). From Steve Allen to Jack Paar to Johnny Carson to Jay Leno to Conan O’Brien and back to Jay, each host has left some sort of mark. Unfortunately in the past 22 years, its reputation has been sullied a bit by the uncomfortable shake-up of hosts — first in the early ’90s and then with the infamous Conan shrift in 2010. This time the transition feels more fluid and gracious. Sure, Leno’s interviews have shown that he probably still wants to hold on to the job but deep down he knows there is a need for new blood on that stage. And Jimmy is that fresh, new blood. The competition will be stiff with Letterman, Kimmel, and to a lesser extent, Colbert (“lesser” due only to his non-network status), all in the 11:30 p.m. slots. But there is something Jimmy has that the rest do not — a playful charm that appeals to the kid in all of us and an ostensible humility stemming from his awareness that he won some kind of lottery. He is that all-around nice guy who will succeed in appealing to audiences of all ages.

Before the show aired, Jimmy wrote to his fans, sharing the intangible excitement in the building for the new Tonight Show knowing, “we’ll never have this exact feeling ever again. We can’t put that feeling — that moment — back in the bottle.” That energetic buzz filtered into the show’s opening monologue in the form of palpable nerves, but the tension quickly dissipated once Jimmy got to doing what he does best: viral, gif-able, celebrity collaborations. He kicked things off with “Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing” featuring Will Smith and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Every night has come with its own buzzy moment that bombards newsfeeds, Buzzfeed and Tumblr: from Kristen Wiig as a confused and windswept Harry Styles, The Ragtime Gals rendition of “Ignition (Remix),” to a deftly edited video of NBC’s Brian Williams and Lester Holt rapping “Rapper’s Delight,” to the fifth installment of “The History of Rap” with best friend, Justin Timberlake. Even while maintaining many of the vestiges of Late Night, Jimmy is upping the ante and reinvigorating the staleness The Tonight Show has been experiencing in recent years. It has finally become relevant to the 21st century.

Along with the millions of Americans, Jimmy’s family, friends and colleagues have all come and showed their support this week, in the stead of typical promotional plugging. No better example exists than the payout for the $100 bets against him ever hosting The Tonight Show, which saw everyone from Saturday Night Live pals to sports and acting legends to Lady Gaga to ex-best friend, and now competitor, Stephen Colbert. The latter brought him the money in pennies and yelled, “Welcome to 11:30 bitch!” (His tone changed the following night on The Colbert Report when he congratulated Jimmy on the new gig and welcomed him to the timeslot).

This warm welcome is not just for the sake of appearances. In fact when Jimmy asked first guest, Will Smith, for advice, he was told simply to “keep loving people,” a trait that Fallon has been exhibiting since his days at the Saturday Night Live Weekend Update desk. He has never made fun of people for the sake of being mean, but rather points out the silliness and natural comedy of the public spotlight. His ego never gets in the way like some of his colleagues, either. He gives credit where credit is due and in return, he has received acceptance and adulation from those with whom he has come in contact. He makes show business feel warm and fuzzy and not like the cold, austere, exclusive society that it can sometimes seem to be. It is a warmth that has not really been present in late night television since the king himself, Johnny Carson. Or better yet, he’s basically the late-night version of Ellen DeGeneres.

“My goal is to make you laugh and put a smile on your face,” Jimmy said on Monday, “so that you go to bed with a smile on your face and live a longer life.” He has accomplished just that if this premiere week is any indication of the rest of his tenure.