It was only several years back that Conan O’Brien took over hosting The Tonight Show from Jay Leno, in a move that – while not long lasting – did leave quite a mark on the late night landscape. Everyone who cares already knows about what happened next, so suffice to say that we find ourselves in a similar situation now, only this time Jay is handing the reins to Mr. James Fallon.
I’ve been a Fallon fan since his early Saturday Night Live days. I always found his delivery and ever-present corpsing endearing and infectious. I was bummed when he left the show and even followed his attempts at movie stardom (Taxi and Fever Pitch are both pretty bad). When he was announced at O’Brien’s Late Night successor I was pretty jazzed; it seemed like a really good outlet for his specific brand of comedy. I watched the show pretty religiously for the first few months (I’ll be honest: The Roots were a big part of why I got so invested so fast) and enjoyed it, but I eventually fell off the Fallon tip for the next 5 years. Word on the street is that the show only got better, and the clips I saw online seem to corroborate this, but it still seems weird to me that this guy I’ve watched evolve comedically is now front and center on the biggest name in late night television.
Conan was already a going concern by the time I was actively consuming media. He has always been a figure in my life; so when he took over The Tonight Show it seemed like the natural course of events. Fallon, on the other hand, has matured as a performer while I have grown as a human being. Perhaps that is part of the reason why his inheritance doesn’t feel quite so earned. Conan did Late Night for 15+ years. Compared to that streak Fallon is still just a babe in the woods.
But no amount of double-thinking is going to derail the train at this point. Fallon is the non-Leno host that we need, if not the one we deserve, and Jimmy seems to acknowledge this. The first chunk of the show consisted of Fallon paying homage to the legacy of the show that he is aware he doesn’t quite live up to. The opening is almost sickeningly maudlin, so I was glad when they finally got to doing bits.
One of my problems with The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien was that Conan was resistant to bringing the frenetic energy that made his Late Night so much fun to 11:30. It was out of a kind of respect for the show’s history, but it yielded a product that didn’t feel true to Conan. If last night’s episode is any indication, Fallon does not posess those same qualms. “The Evolution of Hip Hop Dancing” is exactly the kind of thing Jimmy did on Late Night, and it is great to see him bringing this voice to the new show.
Fallon’s other main strength is in his interview segments. Last night’s guest, Will Smith, said something very apt in regards to the people present to support the new host: “People are coming because of your heart.” This couldn’t be more true. Fallon actually wants to talk to the guests on his show, not just ask them about their most recent project. He wants to form a bond, however short it may last.
Unfortunately the first episode’s guests aren’t the best choices to showcase this. Will Smith is an entertaining man, but he is stuck in a transitional phase of his career; one where he is no longer the huge star he once was. Everything he says seems so calculated, which does nothing for the loose type of interaction that Fallon excels at. On the other hand, the members of U2 seem so disinterested in the whole thing. I applaud Bono for attempting to give a speech about a mug, but their entire segment feels so static and planned that there is no room for fun. Plus, Will Smith and U2? This would have been a great episode 10 years ago, but today? I’m not so sure (though I do really like “Ordinary Love”).
The gratuitous parade of celebrity cameos toward the beginning of the episode is an indication of where the show can go in the coming months. Despite the disappointments of the episode I am heartily encouraged and look forward to seeing what Fallon does with the time slot. Plus, as long as The Roots are in, how could I not stick around?