There's something to be said for starting off brave and bold, and Jimmy Fallon did that on Monday night.
For about a minute.
After that, not so much.
The first "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" (weeknights, 11:35 p.m., Ch. 5) was pretty much exactly what you'd expect. Your basic late-night talk show, this time it was hosted by the former "Saturday Night Live" cast member.
And, pretty much exactly as expected, it wasn't a particularly good debut.
That doesn't mean it won't get good, but there are couple of concerns that have got to be addressed.
You've got to admire Fallon for being secure enough to open his first "Late Night" with a taped bit with his predecessor. As Fallon was getting ready to go on, Conan O'Brien was in the dressing room packing his stuff in a cardboard box.
"Will you be taking Jay's old dressing room when you go to L.A.?" Fallon asked.
"Jay (Leno) isn't leaving," O'Brien said somberly.
From there, it was a conventional late-night show. Fallon went out and did a monologue, delivering mostly bad jokes as stiffly as we might have expected from a guy who's not a stand-up comedian. Although perhaps more stiffly than we might have expected from someone with all that "SNL" experience.
He did half a dozen jokes in 31/2 minutes without ever really hitting the target. They ranged from a line about how "Rush Limbaugh called me and said he wants me to fail," to a decent line about how new Microsoft stores will be "just like the Apple stores, except the staff will freeze when you ask them a question."
But, like a musical "slow jam" of the news with the house band, The Roots, it was more clever than funny.
And then there was a "joke" about a 16-year-old boy who had sex with his 23-year-old teacher.
"Doctors are going to say that it's going to take years of therapy just to wipe the smile off his face," Fallon said.
Not only could you see that coming, but isn't child sexual abuse hilarious?
An interview with Robert DeNiro was awkward to the max. Anytime the host talks more than the guest it's not good, and somebody needs to tell Fallon that it's his show but the interviews should be about the guests.
In other words, he shouldn't be telling self-aggrandizing stories about himself and Jack Nicholson when Robert DeNiro is sitting next to him.
The only time Fallon's "Late Night" had any real energy was when guest Justin Timberlake was on, and that was because Timberlake seemed so comfortable — perhaps because so much of his interaction with Fallon was clearly rehearsed.
He was, however, far more comfortable than Fallon, who seemed like a guy who lost his place in the middle of a speech.
"What was I going to say? Now I'm lost," he actually said at one point.
About as lost as he looked during the show's first "big game" — a bit called "Lick It for Ten," in which three audience members were called down to lick a lawn mower, a printer/copier and a bowl of goldfish in return for $10.
And the bit just sort of lay there and died.
Audience participation is a time-honored tradition in late-night talk shows, and the "game" is irrelevant. It's all about the host interacting with the audience members, which is why David Letterman can do something like "Know Your Cuts of Meat" and make it wildly entertaining.
Fallon, however, didn't connect with anyone, and the entertainment value of the bit was replays of people licking.
So there wasn't any entertainment value.
In the lead-up to his debut, the former "SNL" star was particularly enthusiastic about the taped bits he was planning. But then we saw the first one — about the show's supposed target demographic of blond mothers from Connecticut — and it fell remarkably flat.
But not as flat as a taped clip of the alleged film "Space Train," featuring Fallon and DeNiro. That was awful.
After one installment, it's not altogether fair to review a show that could, conceivably, run for hundreds if not thousands of episodes. If history has shown us anything, it's that there's a learning curve for talk-show hosts. And that, over time, viewers tend to become more comfortable with them.
Fallon looked understandably nervous and awkward on Monday night. You've got to think that he'll settle down and do better as he gets more experience. And that he'll either loosen up on the regimentation or learn to make it look less regimented.
Mind you, even the best late-night hosts have pretty tight control over what's happening. It takes a lot of work to make a show look free-wheeling.4 comments on this story
What was most troubling about Fallon's underwhelming debut wasn't just that it was sooooo scripted, but that the script was so lame. And that he had so much time to get ready for a show that was so, well, mediocre at best.
Fallon was given the job a year ago; he's had a staff assembled for months; the best they could come up with was "Lick It for Ten" and "Space Train"?
Not a good sign.
There's a lot of room for improvement on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." It's just that there's got to be a lot of improvement or Fallon may end up sounding as plaintive as he did on Monday night when he looked into the camera and said, "Stick around. Come right back. Please!"