Friday, March 6, 2009

Jimmy Fallon Takes Over for Conan O'Brien

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

As Jimmy Fallon wraps up his first week taking over Conan O'Brien's post-Jay Leno 12:35 a.m. spot on NBC, people will no doubt chime in on how he did and what his chances are for future success. Personally, while I certainly have some first impressions, I think any fair analysis of Fallon is extremely premature. After all, it took O'Brien a long time to adapt to the role (NBC execs supposedly fired him in 1995 after a year on the air, only to change their minds a few hours later). And I'm sure that Fallon is engaged in major trial and error right now, trying to figure out what works and what kind of show he wants to do. Ask me next March and I'll tell you what I think of Fallon.

I'm more interested in giving a pop quiz:

Which late-night talk show host made this joke on Wednesday night during his opening monologue:

"Especially with the economy slowing down. Everybody's cutting back. Everybody. Madonna's down to one teenage boyfriend."

A) David Letterman
B) Jay Leno
C) Craig Ferguson
D) Jimmy Fallon

The correct response isn't really important (it was Fallon). More to the point is this question: If you didn't know the answer and found out it was Leno, Letterman or Ferguson, would you have said, "No way, he would never make that joke"? Nope. There is nothing radical going on with the move from O'Brien to Fallon on "Late Night." The talk show genre never seems to change, at least on the networks.

And that's really the take-away on Fallon's first week on NBC. His version of "Late Night" is cut from the same cloth as O'Brien's (and Letterman's before that). He does a monologue. He's got a band. He's got a desk. He talks to guests. He does comedy bits, sometimes with his guests, sometimes on his own. And he has a musical guest in the last segment. Fallon's show is closer to Jack Paar than "The Daily Show."

If there is any minor adjustment Fallon is trying to make to the genre, it's an effort to attract a younger audience. The band is the hip hop outfit the Roots. Instead of more traditional tomfoolery like Letterman's Will It Float or O'Brien's In the Year 2000, one of Fallon's comedy segments introduced an Internet clip (Tuesday's installment was dancing Germans showing off soccer jerseys in the 1970s). But, really, we are talking about the most minor of adjustments. Thursday's guests were Donald Trump and Serena Williams, a pairing you could easily see on Leno or Letterman. And as my pop quiz demonstrated, his monologue jokes are no edgier than those of his older colleagues.

Don't get me wrong, I don't mean all this as a put-down. There is nothing wrong with "Late Night" being a classic-style talk show. In fact, in our ever-changing, always-churning, MTV-attention-span culture, there is something comforting about the continuity. Think of it this way: Since 1982, Fallon is only the third host in his time slot. That's kind of cool. (Of course, when O'Brien takes over the "Tonight Show," he will be the third person to hold the job since 1962!) The endurance of the genre, and the way it has hardly changed, is really amazing, especially when you consider how much the prime-time schedule has evolved over the last ten years (reality shows in, sitcoms out, and NBC turning 10 p.m. over to Leno).

So the bottom line is that Jimmy Fallon's "Late Night" is a familiar talk show, and we'll know in a year if he's any good at it. Okay? Are we good? Can I go now? In light of all I've written, you don't want to hear what I thought of Fallon's first week, do you? Because it doesn't matter, right?

Fine. Have it your way. Here is the conventional review:

I thought Fallon was fine. When he was on "Saturday Night Live," he was a bit of a divisive performer. He took a lot of heat for breaking up during sketches, and some people found his hipster persona (and super hipster messed-up hair) to be off-putting. But I never had a problem with him. I thought Fallon and Tina Fey made for a pretty good Weekend Update team, and he had more than a few recurring characters that I enjoyed (like the Nomar Garciaparra-loving New Englander Sully, the smug computer guy Nick Burns, and Barry Gibb as a talk show host).

So I went into Fallon's late nighttime foray with an open mind. And I think he's off to a fine start. The nerves that were all too evident on Monday (causing him to be a bit of a manic and jumpy presence in his interviews of Robert DeNiro and Justin Timberlake) were mostly gone by Wednesday, when he was relaxed and funny with Cameron Diaz (including a funny dance-off between the two) and Billy Crudup.

Surprisingly, I think in these early days Fallon is doing a better job with the interviews than he is with the monologue. His boyish persona isn't a great fit for the run-of-the-mill late night jokes. He lacks Letterman's irony and Ferguson's goofiness. But, clearly, he and the writers will have every chance to find the right tone and approach over time.

In the interviews, though, Fallon has already demonstrated an ability to convey a kind of fun vibe with his guests. It's like he is so happy to be in that seat, and you're happy to watch him be happy. Not surprisingly, Fallon and Fey had great chemistry, but he also managed to connect with Diaz, Crudup and Jon Bon Jovi. Fallon is not a great interviewer yet, and he doesn't always listen closely enough to his guests, sometimes too intent on getting to his next question or joke. But I'm sure he'll get better, and it's not like O'Brien, who grew into a adept comic, ever really learned to be a great inquisitor.

The comic bits are also finding their footing. I liked the idea of the fake "Space Train" movie that Fallon pretended to have done with DeNiro, but the material didn't live up to the concept. Ditto with the opening night gambit of having O'Brien packing in the dressing room as Fallon got ready for the show. I liked the video segment better, during which someone dressed like one of the retro German dancers appeared onstage, with Fallon claiming that he escaped from the television. And there was a very funny bit with New York mayor Michael Bloomberg coming out of the audience and posing for pictures with Fallon in front of a giant television screen that projected different backgrounds, from City Hall to the Eiffel Tower to Max Headroom. I even got a kick out of Fallon inviting a Bon Jovi fan to karaoke "Wanted Dead or Alive" for Bon Jovi, with the singer later joining the starstruck woman to belt the chorus with her. It was a cute moment. (You can watch episodes of the program on Hulu.)

The Roots are a great choice for the band. From a comic standpoint, Fallon hasn't used them much yet, but the opening night had a funny segment in which Fallon crooned jokes like a Barry White seducer, with Tariq, the lead singer, trading verses with him. As a band, they get the job done, even passing an early test that they can handle other genres by doing a spot-on backing job for the Bon Jovi song.

As I said at the beginning, we won't really know what Fallon is like as a host for some time. He's still figuring that out for himself. But so far, so good. That is, of course, if you like the traditional talk show format. Because while we may not know yet if Fallon will be a king of late night, we already know that his show's format is still reigning after all these years.