Turns out you can teach an old time slot new tricks.
The recent passing of The Tonight Show torch from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon sparked the inevitable state-of-the-genre conversation. In a world ruled by tweets and memes, Netflix and YouTube, is there even a place for late-night talk shows anymore?
Dont know about talk shows plural, but theres certainly a place for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, if only because Fallons been rigorously carving it out from the calcified post-nightly news landscape himself.
Whether hes playing Flip Cup with Annette Bening, photo-bombing tourists with Jon Hamm or just chatting it up with the endless array of his very favorite people, Fallon has, in less than two months, re-framed the franchise and sparked the kind of audience excitement The Tonight Show hasnt seen in years.
The ratings have soared, and why not? Where else are you going to see Michelle Obama hamming it up with Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson playing Pictionary with Bradley Cooper, or Idina Menzel killing the freshly Oscar-anointed Let It Go with only toy instruments as accompaniment?
Fallons midcareer energy infuses his Tonight Show with the kind of good-natured, slightly silly welcome to the party feel that Ellen DeGeneres brought so successfully to daytime (and more divisively to this years Oscars). Night after night there are music and games, pranks and funny anecdotes, all involving A-list stars with whom Fallon interacts as admiring peer rather than benevolent dictator.
Admittedly, Fallon gave us quite a scare in the beginning. His Feb. 17 debut was nothing if not underwhelming. Uncharacteristically subdued and pale, Fallon spent much of the hour downplaying his worthiness to accept the mantle.
If it hadnt been for U2 (who played on the roof of Rockefeller Center) and Stephen Colbert (who showered Fallon with pennies), the first show would have been a total dud.
Whether it was a clever exercise in expectation management or just a bad case of opening-night jitters, that initial clammy uncertainty is now just a distant memory. Fallon has swiftly claimed ownership of the iconic hour in a way that pays homage to tradition relax everyone, there will still be an opening monologue but, mercifully, does not bow to it.
Under Johnny, and then Jay, The Tonight Show became very pleased with itself. For up-and-coming comedians, snagging a spot on Carson could make or break a career, and eventually that feeling extended across the entertainment industry. For moviemakers, musicians, writers and eventually politicians, an appearance on The Tonight Show became such a marketing necessity it was treated as an honor.
While this cemented the show as a ratings leader, it also made the guy behind the desk seem more monarch as host; even the ever-amiable Leno granted an audience more than sat down for a chat.
Many of Fallons early guests, including Tina Fey, Cameron Diaz, Adam Sandler and Demi Lovato, are actual friends and former colleagues. Lovato gave him a homemade BFF sweatshirt; Diaz pranked Fallons infant daughter Winnie and brought a photo. Its hard to imagine David Letterman even having a BFF or Leno being privately pranked by anyone.
And it isnt just age. Unlike, say, Conan OBrien or even Jimmy Kimmel, Fallons shtick is his Everyman quality. He is the Tom Hanks of hosting, able to project endearing uncertainty even as he clearly runs the show.
As with Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, his studio band, the Roots, has its own set of sketches, and even the audience is encouraged to participate through various hashtags #howIgotdumped which Fallon often then reads on the show.
Concerned over declining viewership and an aging demographic, NBC clearly hoped that Fallon would make The Tonight Show a habit among a new generation. Instead hes just gone and made The Tonight Show fun. #greatidea.