I have always loved late night talk shows. When I was two years old, I refused to sleep in my (perfectly comfortable) twin bed and much preferred sleeping on the (much less comfortable) living room floor. I have no explanation for this other than kids are weird. My father would stay out there with me, but he often would fall asleep well before I did while watching TV. I would stay up and watch The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I was fascinated by the Technicolor curtain that he would do his monologue in front of and though I didn’t understand the jokes, his face was expressive enough that I thought he was funny. I liked when he did the golf swing, which may be the origin of my interest in golf. Watching Johnny Carson is one of my earliest childhood memories; I guess it is no surprise that I grew up to be a pop culture junkie.
In college I was more of a Late Night with David Letterman fan and wrote my own top ten lists that I would leave on my friends’ dry erase boards on their door room doors. During my first year of graduate school at UConn (Go Huskies!), I was pretty miserable and unhappy and suffered from insomnia. Late Night with Conan O’Brien became my friend and Conan assumed the position of my go-to late night guy. When Conan took over The Tonight Show in 2009, I followed him and may have been one of the few people who watched the show religiously to show my support (though I’m old now, so I had to DVR it; I can’t regularly stay up until 12:30 am and then get to work on time and be pleasant to co-workers). I again followed him to TBS, though I watch more infrequently (I have never, EVER been a Jay Leno fan. To indicate otherwise will get you a punch in the mouth. Team Coco!). As a political scientist and longtime Jon Stewart fan, The Daily Show is now my primary late night viewing (and The Colbert Report to a lesser extent) and I find it difficult to keep up with too many shows that are on 5 nights a week. I watch too much television as it is, so sacrifices have to be made and Conan was among them.
When it was announced that Jimmy Fallon would be taking over the vacant 12:35 am slot on NBC as a result of the Leno/Conon shuffle, I was intrigued. I thought it was an interesting choice – Fallon is not the first person I would have thought of for a talk show, especially since he is probably most famous for some not very good movies (Taxi, anyone?) and for constantly breaking character and laughing in skits during his stint on Saturday Night Live. He was, however, pretty good behind the desk on “Weekend Update” and always seemed to be having a lot of fun in whatever he did, so it wasn’t a completely without merit. And when your house band is The Roots, your show has automatic potential to awesome. I’ve always like Jimmy Fallon as a person – I’ve never met him, but he seems like a pretty affable guy and has a local connection – so I was hoping he would do well. I tuned into his first week of episodes and it just wasn’t very good – he seemed very nervous and couldn’t relax and his choice of first guest didn’t help matters. I love Robert DeNiro, but he does not give a good interview; he is far too reserved and taciturn, which only exasperated a bad situation. The show was just too awkward and painful to continue watching and I switched it off after a week, expecting that it might not last long. Besides, I was getting wrapped up in the Conon/Leno/Letterman/Kimmel wars, which were much more exciting.
Quietly, however, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon has become one of the best things on late night.
While I didn’t watch the show for a while, I noticed that many of the clips from the show were getting a lot of play on the internet. His “History of Rap” with Justin Timberlake became quite the sensation, as did some of his other skits and songs. I thought all the clips I saw were very clever and they were a massive jump in quality from the early episodes of the show that I had seen. It appeared that Fallon had found his comfort zone and made the necessary adjustments for the show to really flourish. I had caught of few of his “themed” episodes – Bruce Springsteen was on for the whole episode a few times and even Barack Obama made an appearance recently – and had enjoyed them, but I was already partial to the guests that he was having on. When summer rolled around and my TV schedule lightened up immensely, I decided to start DVRing the show every night. I was curious if I would appreciate the show as much when the guests were not people that I was already a big fan of.
The few shows that I had seen since the early run of the show were no fluke; Fallon and his writing staff have really put together a great show. They have found a way to play to Fallon’s strengths and have learned how to use The Roots to the maximum benefit of the show. Fallon is a musical guy and some of the best material on the show is his songs. The Roots have proven that they are not only musically talented, but that they can also be employed in some of the comedy bits as well. They recently were front in center in Late Night’s obligatory “Call Me Maybe” bit (with Carly Rae Jepsen as a participant):
They are such a respected band that other musicians want to come on the show to play with them and they provide a very solid foundation for the show to build from. The booking agent for the musical guests on the show also does a great job of giving exposure to some bands and artists that are not quite mainstream yet; I’ve discovered a lot of music on the show that I now listen to regularly.
Fallon seems to have gotten over whatever stage fright or hesitation that he had in the beginning and looks far more at ease on camera. His monologue is still probably the weakest part of the show, but I’d argue that is the case for most of the late night hosts. He has vastly improved as an interviewer and he is especially good when the guest is someone that he knows well – whenever a former SNL cast member is on, it always makes for good television. He is able to put his guests at ease and they seem very relaxed on the show, even if they are using the same prepared antidotes that they use in most of their appearances.
It is the skits and games, however, that really are what I love about the show and what I think elevates it beyond some of the other programs. The writers know that with Fallon’s background in sketch comedy that they can throw some really fun and creative things at him and he’ll be able to roll with it. I am constantly amazed at the creative things that they come up with and how well they execute them. I thought their Downton Abbey parody (Downton Sixbey) was hilarious:
They regularly get the guests involved as well, as they did when Channing Tatum gamely dressed in drag a few weeks ago:
He even got me to kind of like Justin Bieber:
After the main guest is interviewed, the majority of them then participate in some sort of game with Fallon. Chris Rock played golf in the studio, Kelly Ripa played “Rock, Paper, Scissors, Pie,” Emma Stone played Charades, Courtney Cox played Password, Taylor Kitsch played hockey with jelly donuts, Nathan Fillion played bow and arrow shootout, and Michelle Pfieffer played my favorite, beer pong. It is a nice break from the usual chatter on talk shows – the celebrity isn’t trying to promote anything during these segments. They are just having a good time and seem far more “normal” than they do in other settings. If a guest doesn’t participate in a sketch or a game, I totally judge them for it and assume that they must be kind of a jerk or don’t have much of a sense of humor. Most guests are more than willing, so they may not book guests who aren’t willing to play along, but it still happens every once in a while.
I don’t know that I’ll be able to devote as much time to the show once the fall television season begins, but I’m going to try my best. Late Night with Jimmy Fallon seems like it is a big party where there is good music and a lot of laughs and I’m happy to participate, even if it is from my couch (though I am going to try and get tickets to a taping). If you aren’t watching, check it out. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.