Jimmy Fallon took over NBC's "The Tonight Show" Monday night with a characteristically sincere pronouncement – “this is important” – as he introduced everyone from himself as a proud 39-year-old dad of a new daughter and his parents (in the cheering studio audience) to his announcer, his cue cards, and even the four-leaf clover that guides him to his stage mark for the opening monologue.
Mr. Fallon also reminded folks that the show has returned to its Manhattan roots. The late-night franchise began in the Big Apple more than half a century ago with hosts Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and even Johnny Carson, who then moved it to “beautiful downtown Burbank,” some 42 years ago.
The show is back in its original setting in a Rockefeller Center studio. But storied history aside, hosting hand-offs are by no means guaranteed to be successful, as NBC’s fumbled 2009 attempt to replace Jay Leno with Conan O’Brien amply demonstrated.
And so, say TV experts, Fallon’s ramble down memory lane was as much reminding viewers that the show has survived previous incarnations as it was asking for their patience with this latest transformation.
The new host is going to need this, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.
“Late night has completely transformed since the early days of a single show dominating the time slot,” he points out. The 11:30 p.m. TV landscape not only boasts more than a dozen competing comedy shows – from David Letterman to Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, and Arsenio Hall – but it has cult programs such as Adult Swim drawing off eyeballs of the night owls.
Commentary on Fallon’s debut has been mixed, ranging from the New York Daily news, which gave the show a Brooklyn shrug, to Time.com’s suggestion that the show may be “incredibly brilliant,” to the Hollywood Reporter’s cautionary note that just because you got the job, doesn’t guarantee success: “There is no narrative now about hallowed tradition.”
Fallon will have to earn his audience, says Professor Thompson, but there is reason to suggest he may succeed, where for instance, the edgier Mr. O’Brien did not. (His ascension lasted less than a year, culminating with NBC unceremoniously returning Leno to the chair.)
Success in the 21st century may mean combining the banal with the brilliant and a touch of business savvy, says Thompson, to come up with the sort of middle-of-the road format that will appeal to a wide range of viewers.
This was Carson’s real gift, says Thompson. “Carson has become sanctified as TV genius,” he says, but “the fact is if you randomly look at Carson ‘Tonight Shows’ they were kind of ‘eh.’ ” Carson did nice interviews, but, says Thompson, what he really did “was make people comfortable.”
Indeed, if such a thing is already possible, the debut show featured vintage good-natured Jimmy Fallon, says Mark Lashley, a professor of communication at La Salle University in Philadelphia.
Fallon got guests involved with the comedy bits, he notes, as actor Will Smith joined for a very funny “Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing,” there were tried and true routines such as the “Tonight Show Superlative” segment, and incredibly enthusiastic celebrity interviews.
And in a segment with the band U2 that closed the broadcast, says Professor Lashley via e-mail, the show served up “a really fun, outside-the-box acoustic performance that got the crowd, the house band, Smith, and Fallon involved (while still managing to poke a little fun at the faux-spontaneity of it all).”
After decades of anti-comedy from the likes of Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman, and CBS competitor David Letterman, Fallon’s genuine affability may be the secret to success in 21st century late-night broadcasting, says Len Shyles, a communications professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia.
“Late-night television represents reassuring and light entertainment, has a track record, sets a tone that viewers are familiar with and have come to enjoy,” he says via e-mail. But perhaps more than the longevity of the genre that breeds comfort and familiarity, he notes, the excellence of the production values makes for a more enjoyable "lean-back" experience.
The evening showcased Fallon’s ability to draw A-list talent. A parade of celebrities, including Robert DeNiro, Stephen Colbert, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lady GaGa, Mariah Carey, and more streamed onstage in a bit about a $100 bet Fallon supposedly made with friends over whether he would ever ascend to ‘The Tonight Show’ berth.
And perhaps, more pointedly, in a nod to the iconic London swansong by the Beatles in 1969, the band U2 performed on the Rockefeller Center rooftop against the backdrop of a multi-colored New York City skyline sunset.
“I think of events like the Superbowl and the Olympics, and I think broadcasters still are the best at doing such challenging productions,” notes Shyles. Perhaps broadcasting still has its advantages in reaching large audiences, he says, “Even in the world of late-night entertainment.”
Maybe late-night programs like “The Tonight Show” still benefit from operating out of a broadcast model, he adds, even though there is now an online alternative.