Fallon era begins on 'Tonight'
A new era of The Tonight Show broke out like a fire drill last midnight. There's a new fire marshal in town, in case you hadn't heard. His name is Jimmy Fallon, and he's a bit of an arsonist.
He's refashioned the Tonight format to play to his strengths, conceal his weaknesses, and hold the focus of today's short-attention span audience. Squirrel!
Fallon is more an impressionist than a stand-up, so he's truncated the opening monologue. Instead, he uses his Saturday Night Live training to pepper his show with skits. In the first one last night, he gave a shout-out to the friend who bet him he'd never host The Tonight Show.
"You know who you are," said Fallon, sitting behind the desk in the refurbished Studio 6B for the first time. "You owe me $100!" Then a motley procession of celebrities marched out from behind the curtain, petulantly threw down a Benjamin, and stormed off. The doubters included Robert DeNiro, Tina Fey, Joe Namath, Rudy Giuliani, Mariah Carey, Tracy Morgan, Joan Rivers, Seth Rogen, Lindsay Lohan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lady Gaga, Mike Tyson, and Stephen Colbert.
His other skit, with his first guest, Will Smith, was a hoofing spoof, "The Evolution of Hip Hop Dancing," from the Robot to the Dougie. Both men were dressed in overalls with one strap undone. Later on the couch, Smith, pointing to himself and the house band, the Roots, said, "You got a lot of Philly boys to support you. You made a really good choice."
The Roots took the wraps off what is unquestionably the funkiest Tonight theme in history, a flubbery instrumental with a "Hey, hey, hey" chanted chorus.
After more than 40 years in the arid wasteland of Burbank, Calif., Fallon has restored the show to its original Manhattan setting, and the city was spotlit prominently in the premiere, both in Spike Lee's glittering opening sequence and in a performance by U2 of "Invisible" high atop 30 Rock.
Fallon's other Achilles heel is that he's not much of an interviewer. (That's a vanishing art in late night overall.) But he was at his fawning worst when he brought Bono and the boys down to the couch for a chat.
Fallon cannily sidesteps this flaw by getting his guests to go outside their comfort zones, asking them to do kooky antics. In the case of arena gods U2, it was asking them to play an acoustic version of "Ordinary Love," their Oscar-nominated song from Mandela: Long Road to Freedom.
It bears remarking that Conan O'Brien attempted a similar antic approach in his brief tenure as Tonight host, and that didn't work out too well.
But Fallon is far gentler and more accommodating than O'Brien was. The mixture of energy, inventiveness, and sweetness may prove to be a welcome nightcap for viewers.
In fact, the most remarkable aspect of Fallon's Tonight debut was its outright sentimentality. He acknowledged and spoke to his parents in the audience. And there were several points, as when he talked about his 6-month-old, daughter, Winnie, that he had to fight back tears.
Hey, Jimmy, it's traditional to turn on the waterworks when you say goodbye as host, not when you say hello. Maybe this is going to be a new take on an old favorite.