February 17, 2014

THE SKED Review: “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon”


A guy–almost always a middle-aged white guy–walks out onto a stage and delivers a 10 or 15 minute stand-up routine about current events, to the cameras and a live audience of a few hundred people.  Then he sits behind a desk and for another 10 minutes or so, he does a pre-scripted (sometimes pre-taped) comedy bit.  After that, a guest or two comes out, each with something to promote, and each the subject of a brief, superficial, mildly humorous interview.  The evening ends with a musical performer, also with something to plug, doing a number, and then “Thanks for watching–tune in tomorrow!”.

It may be, next to the network evening news, the part of television that has changed the least since the medium began.

As it happens, I know a bit about the crazy transition between late-night talk show hosts.  I was the intellectual property lawyer at NBC during that weird period between the last days of David Letterman’s tenure and the start of Conan O’Brien’s, and if I told you the number of hours of my life that were spent trying to find a rationale for how Letterman could be kept from bringing his Top 10 List to CBS, you would weep.  (Or at least giggle.)   Hundreds of millions of dollars were at stake when one of these ascensions occurred, and the shifts from Johnny Carson to Jay Leno, and then from Leno to Conan (and then back again) were epochal moments in mass culture, the subject of bestselling books and at least one movie.

All of that seems like a very long time ago.  Letterman, when he burst onto the scene, brought something genuinely fresh to the formula with his surreal, conceptual take on it, but with all due respect to Dave, when was the last time he did anything truly innovative or exciting?  Jon Stewart has provided a sharp left turn by adding genuine political passion and a point of view to the mix, but even his show sticks to the format.  Late-night talk shows were once cash cows for the networks, but now they’re just another daypart struggling to maximize profit, as the network shows fall behind not just Comedy Central’s duo of Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but also behind Adult Swim’s cartoons, not to mention the DVR’d shows that many people prefer to watch before they go to sleep.

Tonight was Jimmy Fallon’s turn to claim the once-storied desk of THE TONIGHT SHOW, and his transition from Jay was about as smooth as one of these can be–and, as a result, quite unexciting.  No one, not even NBC, expects Fallon to change the complexion of late-night television; they’ll be happy if he holds his own, especially with younger viewers defecting to Jimmy Kimmel on ABC, to cable and to other uses of their time.

Fallon is a personable host, and in this job, being likable is at least as important as being hilarious.  His monologue (mostly jokes about the Olympics) provoked little more than a mild smile, but none of it was painful.  Since this was the premiere, the desk bit featured a multitude of celebrities (Colbert, Tina Fey, Robert DeNiro, Lindsay Lohan, the banished-by-Carson Joan Rivers, Mike Tyson and Seth Rogen among them) for mostly silent cameos supposedly paying off $100 bets that Fallon would never become host, and U2’s musical number was staged on 30 Rock’s picturesque rooftop instead of in the studio.  (In this, as in the Spike Lee-directed opening credits, Fallon is trying to play up the new Tonight Show‘s New York setting.)  Will Smith was the main guest, and although he’s a “get” as a huge movie star (with nothing to promote this week), his brand of somewhat impersonal practiced charm was perhaps too on the money for the tone of this hour, which felt spontaneous only when Fallon’s father apparently went off-book to shout some proud remarks when he was introduced in the audience.

It may or may not end up being a selling point for Fallon that he’s the only host without any clear persona:  Letterman is the cranky old genius, Kimmel the blue-collar working-stiff comic (ironically, given his distaste for Leno, he’s Jay’s real successor), Stewart the liberal wise guy and Colbert always in character.  Even Craig Ferguson owns the brand for the most freewheeling of the talk shows.  Fallon’s one notable aspect is his set of musical chops, which has made for some truly inspired parodies (often with the real musicians involved as well as the first-rate house band The Roots), but by definition the tone changes with the specific sketch.  It’s given him much-valued viral popularity online, although NBC, like the other networks, has yet to figure out how to monetize that.  Somewhat surprisingly, the show didn’t feature those skills tonight, aside from a hip-hop dance bit with Smith.  (Justin Timberlake, Fallon’s BFF, will come by on Friday and presumably play that up.)

The last of the old-guard generation of late-night hosts is now Letterman, who’s under contract for another couple of years.  People will make a fuss when he finally decides to depart, but will they care who replaces him?  An entire era of TV history feels like it’s going the way of Gunsmoke, unless someone can truly succeed Letterman by doing what he once did, and reimagining the form.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."