It wasn’t long after Jimmy Fallon made his debut as host of The Tonight Show that one Beacon Journal reader called to express her displeasure.
She didn’t like Fallon. She didn’t like the music (which included two songs by U2). She didn’t like the conversation. She thought the audio was bad. She was so unhappy, she filled up one voice mail, then called back to complain some more.
This should not be unexpected. Well before Jay Leno ended his two-decade reign on Tonight, some viewers were telling me how sure they were that Leno was a perfectly fine host and that no pipsqueak named Fallon was fit to replace him.
I get it. I liked Leno, too.
I get that Fallon at times has trouble forming complete sentences when interviewing stars. I get that he seems young in the context of late night, where he is indeed younger than most — though older than Chelsea Handler and Pete Holmes. And his boyishness makes his fawning sometimes seem even more juvenile and annoying than when it came from an older host. I get that even clever sketches, like the history of hip-hop dancing he performed with Will Smith, or the Olympics jokes on his second show, go on longer than the material justifies. He is not exactly what people are used to in late night, especially for people who can’t laugh knowingly at an awkward rendition of the Dougie.
But for those of you out there who have kids Fallon’s age, those of you whose idea of Tonight was shaped by Johnny Carson and maintained by Leno, let me reassure you. I am one of you, after all. And based on a couple of Fallon’s first shows, it’s going to be OK.
Jimmy Fallon is not your enemy. He is younger viewers’ friends — but he wants you to like him, too.
Fallon is doing a show that is distinctly retro, returning the show to its New York City birthplace (which has been celebrated almost as much on the new telecasts as Fallon’s own ascendance) and wearing skinny-lapel suits and ties that give him a Mad Men vibe. There are bits, like the Olympics jokes, that could just as easily have been done by Leno. There will be plenty of celebrities appearing — one opening-night bit had a parade of stars passing through — and they will be treated as kindly by Fallon as Leno would have — as guests. There was a Ryan Seacrest joke in Tuesday’s monologue that had some bite.
Fallon has not only retained the monologue, but he also is quite traditional with it; jokes are set up with enough explanation that viewers won’t feel lost in esoterica.
And the guests the first week? Will Smith and Jerry Seinfeld have had successful careers for more than 25 years; their TV fame came through series that premiered in 1990. U2 is not exactly a peer of One Direction.
At the same time, though, Fallon firmly places himself with the younger set that grew up watching such performers; Fallon’s worship of, say, Seinfeld, implies he is talking to an elder statesman.
Fallon has brought bits that will be familiar to the night owls who followed him as host of Late Night, such as barbershop-quartet renditions of current hits. The comedy can at times be deliberately off-track, as when Kristen Wiig came on the show as One Direction’s Harry Styles but then didn’t keep up the impersonation — and it was more amusing than a faux-Styles interview would have been.
He has also brought from his Late Night show the band the Roots. While there have been people of color running late-night bands before, the guys in the Roots are more than musical accompanists; they are full-scale co-stars. The band’s Mark Kelley set up an appearance by Olympics gold medalist Jamie Anderson. Questlove and Tariq carried on their own re-enactment of dialogue from The Bachelor. And Fallon is very conscious of reaching out to a diverse audience, whether across racial or generational lines. He is, in many respects, goofier but no less audience-minded than his friend Justin Timberlake.
JT, after all, knows how to entertain. And how to wear a retro suit.
And this may spark a revival of Tonight, especially among younger fans. As one Roots fan said on the group’s Facebook page, “I have only watched the tonight show twice since Carson left. I watched Jimmy last night and all I can say is...I’M BACK BABY!!!”
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.