Jimmy Fallon has breathed new life to The Tonight Show writes Frazier Moore
On the walls of Jimmy Fallon's office are photos. Lots of photos. Of his 2007 marriage to film producer Nancy Juvonen. Of their now year-old daughter, Winnie Rose. Of his mom and dad as newlyweds.
But the dominant photo is a portrait of Johnny Carson, in front of his The Tonight Show drapes.
"I look at that every day," says Fallon, "and just go, 'Yeah – it's SO fun!'"
Already Fallon is immersed in this kind of fun. For five years he hosted NBC's Late Night with Jimmy Fallon a job he relinquished late last year. And now he's the host of the most popular late night TV show in the US.
"It's a big TV moment!" says Fallon. "Even if it wasn't me, I would tune in to watch."
When Jimmy Fallon was announced as Jay Leno's replacement in NBC's The Tonight Show, it was unanimously accepted by Hollywood and viewers of Tonight that he was the best person for the show. Even Leno approved.
Leno suggested to Fallon that he expand his monologue from five minutes to 10 and make it more news-focused. The show has its South African premiere on Wednesday, on MTV at 6pm.
Fallon has brought the show back to New York and it's now under the same hallowed roof of NBC's 30 Rockefeller Center headquarters, which is home to Saturday Night Live. The show is also executive produced by Lorne Michaels, creator of SNL.
The move has allowed Tonight to make a clean break from its turbulent post-Carson era under Jay Leno (and, fleetingly, Conan O'Brien), when the Carson-bequeathed formula of jokes, |celebs and chit-chat was, too |often, upstaged by behind-the-scenes soap opera.
Leno was consistently the late-night ratings winner, but never won much respect from the public, critics, or even his own network, which twice sent him packing from Tonight.
Now back in New York, where both The Tonight Show and Carson as its host made their start, this 60-year-old TV institution is poised to pick up the legend from where it languished after Carson's 1992 retirement – and it has.
But even as Fallon waxes eagerness about the success of Tonight, he wants everyone to know it won't really be so different, after all: essentially an hour-earlier Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, including its house band, the Roots, its announcer-sidekick, Steve Higgins, and comic bits like "Slow Jam the News" and "Thank-you Notes."
"When we started Late Night, we were DOING Late Night," Fallon explains. "But over five years it's kind of grown, and blossomed into what it has become, which is The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. We grew into it!"
Fallon first became popular during his six years on SNL where he displayed a chameleonic range of characters and impersonations, plus a musicality that grants him uncanny skill at mimicking numerous recording stars.
His 2004 departure from SNL to pursue a film career didn't pan out, particularly with the comedy flop Taxi, in which he co-starred with Queen Latifah.
"I definitely appreciate everything I get now, where I probably wouldn't have if that movie was a giant hit. I'm kind of happy that my film career didn't take off," he says.
Now a TV staple, Fallon declares that he's developed "a voice that people expect from us".
What is that voice?
"Fun. Nice. Absurd," he says reflectively. A thoughtful pause, then a laugh. "I'm still working on the list."
His key strength as host boils down to his unflagging engagement, says Tonight producer Josh Lieb.
"He's got genuine empathy for his guests and for the audience," he said. "He's trying to give them the best of himself.
His first show featured Will Smith dancing his way through a history of hip-hop, U2 playing on the top of the Rockefeller Centre and cameos from Robert De Niro, Tina Fey, Lindsay Lohan and Mike Tyson.
Subsequent programmes have featured guest appearances from Michelle Obama – goofing around in a sketch with a dragged-up Fallon and Will Ferrell – Jerry Seinfeld, Justin Timberlake rapping, Halle Berry doing cartwheels, Paul Rudd miming to Tina Turner, Lady Gaga, Arcade Fire and Kristen Wiig impersonating Harry Styles.
In the new season, starting on, Wednesday, we can expect a visit from Barbra Streisand, who will be making her first late night talk visit in 50 years. Yip, that's the power of Fallon. – AP/NBC