Jimmy Fallon takes 'Tonight Show' into terrific new territory

Los Angeles TimesMarch 19, 2014 

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From left, Bradley Cooper, Emma Thompson, Jimmy Fallon and Tim McGraw play charades on “The Tonight Show.”

LLOYD BISHOP — NBC

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?

Don’t know about talk shows plural, but there’s certainly a place for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” if only because Fallon’s been rigorously carving it out from the calcified post-nightly news landscape himself.

Whether he’s 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” hasn’t 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?

Fallon’s 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 year’s 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 hadn’t 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 Fallon’s 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” Fallon’s infant daughter Winnie and brought a photo. It’s hard to imagine David Letterman even having a BFF or Leno being privately pranked by anyone.

And it isn’t just age. Unlike, say, Conan O’Brien or even Jimmy Kimmel, Fallon’s 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 he’s just gone and made “The Tonight Show” fun. #greatidea.

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