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New Show, Old Jimmy

To a thunderous applause and musical accompaniment of his eclectic house band, Jimmy Fallon, looking simultaneously excited and nervous, strolled onto the stage at the NBC Studio in New York on Monday night—the new host in the old home of The Tonight Show.

Fallon has left us with many a memory—six years on Saturday Night Live, dabbling in the movie biz (Fever Pitch, anyone?), and five years on Late Night—but the pressure was on for his first time hosting The Tonight Show.

Fallon started his opening monologue with a brief introduction, “I’m Jimmy Fallon and I’ll be your host, for now”—a pointed reference to the exit-enter-exit history of the last host, Jay Leno—and a thank you to the previous Tonight Show hosts in cheeky chronological order, “Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, and Jay Leno.”

His first jokes out of the way, he spent time doing a very low-key, jovial but not particularly jokey introduction of himself, house band The Roots, his parents, and the show’s regular format, all of it about as first-day-of-school as The Tonight Show can get. Fallon gave some brief biographical details, introduced his sidekick announcer (Steve Higgins), and expressed immense gratitude for the gig. When the formalities were over, he re-entered the show through the gigantic blue curtains and started his show the proper way: the usual joke-filled monologue and his usual earnest but nice-guy self.

With the first three episodes, we have seen a parade of celebrities (points to Fallon for having Joan Rivers on his very first episode, the first time she’s appeared since Carson banned her in the late 80’s), a History of Hip-Hop Dance, Ragtime Gals, #Hashtag2, Brian Williams and “Rapper’s Delight,” and countless Olympic jokes. The typical, laughter-inducing show that Fallon fans are used to from his Late Night days.

Fallon proved he can snag A-listers and, in the early going, ratings. The numbers that came out showed him crushing the competition, at least for now. Fallon’s debut on The Tonight Show brought in 11.3 million viewers, hitting the highest ratings in five years. That’s the biggest Tonight audience since, well, Leno’s February 6th farewell, which was watched by 14.6 million. Still, Fallon’s debut was the largest audience in five years and almost three times this season’s average of 3.9 million. (http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/tv-movies/jimmy-fallon-conan-2-0-nbc-exec-article-1.1619299) And Tuesday’s episode proved he’s not just a one hit wonder—Fallon drew 7.4 million viewers for his second night, more than the combined total for his rivals, David Letterman on CBS and Jimmy Kimmel on ABC.

The Tonight Show has been based in Burbank since 1972 when Johnny Carson moved the late night staple west from New York, where it was first conceived in 1954. Fallon has moved Tonight back to its original home in New York City. This simple change of location gives Fallon cool cred (opening credits by Spike Lee) but also legacy cred (he can talk a lot about Carson) while also helping NBC maintain the cultural conceit that 30 Rock is the center of the world.

Fallon’s move to an earlier time slot has been heralded as a way to make late night younger and hipper. Fallon, just by being Fallon, is automatically younger and hipper than Leno, and much less weird than O’Brien. He has the broad appeal and relevancy that Tonight needs to keep its 60-year tradition alive.

Fallon’s a song and dance man: his show is best when it’s a variety show. He has a real gift for performance and mimicry. What has made Fallon a must watch during his tenure at Late Night was his music-based comedy sketches featuring some of the biggest names in entertainment and politics. Slow jamming the news with President Obama, Evolution of “mom dancing” with Michelle Obama, egg cracking with Tom Cruise, endzone dancing or History of Rap with Justin Timberlake, making sandwiches with Will Ferrell, “Ew” with Channing Tatum, and let’s not forget Fallon as Neil Young singing “Whip My Hair” with Springsteen.

He is the most musically inclined host since Steve Allen, with a pop-culture sensibility to match his easy-going ways. He is a likeable guy. He’s confident; he’s casual, he’s well adjusted; he’s an astute user of social media, all of which one hopes he brings to the beloved but undeniably aging franchise. And if song and dance fails, he can do what he’s best at: being really adorable and jazzed with celebrities.

Whether or not Fallon’s credentials as a topical satirist are dauntingly favorable, there’s a lot more to the job of Tonight host than that, and Fallon comes anything but under-equipped. In fact, might be one of the most versatile performers ever to helm the show (see above).

So he can do sketches, he can interview celebrities, he can ad-lib snappy banter with his sidekick-announcer and the show’s brilliant house band (the only late-night band with a tuba)—but can he pass the ultimate test for hosting a late-night talk show: can he be simply himself while hosting a late-night network talk show?

Based on his Late Night track record, the answer would seem to be an obvious yes. Although sometimes alarmingly over-eager and borderline hyper, Fallon has accomplished the skill of keeping his inner boyishness alive. Some have picked on Fallon because he is too young (only 38) and can seem naïve. But these are exploitable qualities, not liabilities. But he does have some problems to work on; including a tendency to become almost star-struck and let giant personalities commandeer his show.

On more than one level, The Tonight Show would seem to be in very safe and capable hands.

“I think he’s probably the closest to Johnny [Carson] of anybody else in late night,” Leno said of Fallon. “When I watch him do, you know, a duet with Justin Timberlake or something of that nature I go, ‘Well, I can’t do that. I mean, I write jokes.’” (http://www.businessinsider.com/letterman-leno-obrien-comment-on-jimmy-fallon-tonight-show-debut-2014-2)

As seen with Late Night, people will come to the show for him; for his charm, for his enthusiasm, for his genuineness, for his performances. As one assumes Fallon knows, because he changed Leno’s “The Tonight Show With” back to Carson’s “The Tonight Show Starring.”

It will be interesting to see over the months (and hopefully years) to follow how Fallon evolves behind the desk.

Go get ‘em, Jimmy. The world after 11:35pm is yours.

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