With the notable exception of those breathless minutes in which U2 and members of the Rutgers Marching Band seemed to be standing way too close to the edge of the top of Rockefeller Center, the debut of “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” was conspicuously, and seemingly consciously, low-energy.
Will Smith was the guest star, dutifully joining Fallon to dance the history of hip-hop, and Bono made a pretty hilarious speech about a coffee mug. But it was a surprisingly quiet premiere, pushed back half an hour by the Olympics and tamped down, perhaps, by all the Jay Leno vs. Conan O’Brien insanity that preceded it.
As if determined to distance himself further from the high-octane opening antics of the last new guy who tried to do this job — O’Brien — Fallon entered stage center in a muted gray suit. And if he didn’t go as far as apologizing for becoming the sixth man to host “The Tonight Show,” he did rigorously, and at times irritatingly, reaffirm his signature humility. “I just want to take care of the show for a while,” he explained, adding that “if you guys let me stick around long enough, maybe I’ll get the hang of it.”
Fallon has long positioned himself as a regular guy, the kind who would rather play charades with his guests than engage in lame interviews — or, even better, just pick up a guitar and goof around. His likableness has taken him far.
But even by his standards, the “aw shucks” factor was high on Monday night.
After a lovely opening credits intro directed by Spike Lee, Fallon took the stage, thanked his predecessors, and said: “I really don’t know how I got here.” Speaking in a voice so quiet you could practically hear audience members swallow, he introduced himself to “those of you who are watching me for the first time, which is very possible,” starting with the basics. “I’m 39 years old, I live in New York City with my beautiful wife, Nancy, and my daughter Winnie, who’s 6 months old ... and I love her so much.”
He went on to introduce his parents, who were in the audience; his band The Roots, whom Fallon brought with him from “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” and his “announcer and psychic” Steve Higgins (ditto.) He pointed out the four-leaf clover that would serve as his monologue mark, explained what a monologue is and then, finally, delivered one. It revolved rather weakly around the Olympics, and included a film clip of Matt Lauer and Al Roker on a bobsled (not a hallmark of comedic success) and a list of “Tonight Show Superlatives” that were very similar to the list he ran a few days ago during NBC’s Olympics coverage.
A very far cry from O’Brien’s lanky swagger or Leno’s self-confident poise and, to be frank, the whole “who, me? host ‘The Tonight Show?’” seemed laid on a bit thick in parts. Fallon may not have served as Leno’s Rachel for seven years as O’Brien did, but he has been hosting “Late Night” for five and before that spent six years on “Saturday Night Live.” So it’s not like he’s some slacker dude who just won the gig on “America’s Got Talent.”
He also moved the show back to New York for the first time in 40 years, so he’s no shrinking violet either.
Which is a good thing; violets, shrinking or otherwise, do not make good late-night hosts. And once Fallon moved behind the desk, and in front of a truly fabulous wooden miniature of New York, he seemed more comfortable, telling “my buddy who said I’d never host ‘The Tonight Show’: You owe me 100 bucks.” Upon which Robert De Niro kicked off a hilarious mélange of stars appearing to slap down a Benjamin Franklin, including Joan Rivers, returning to “The Tonight Show” for the first time since Johnny Carson banished her in 1986, and Stephen Colbert, who showered Fallon with pennies and shouted “Welcome to 11:30, (expletive)”
Now that’s more like it.
After Smith and Fallon did their hip-hop thang, the show moved to the Top of the Rock, where U2 perched along the edge of the roof against a glorious sunset, igniting cheers from the crowd and scaring the heart out of anyone with even a vague fear of heights. Back inside, Fallon chatted with Smith about fame and fear and then welcomed Bono, the Edge and the Gang for a little sit-down. After presenting Fallon with his own (red) guitar, they sang an acoustic version of their Oscar-nominated “Ordinary Love,” which sounded, as so few late-night performances do, just fabulous.
And that is where Fallon will make his mark on the show. He is the most musically inclined host since Steve Allen, with a pop-culture sensibility — he referenced both “Masters of the Universe” and “Dune” in a description of an aerial view of Dubai — to match his easy-going ways. He is playful, he is joyful and he is an astute user of social media, all of which one hopes he brings to the beloved but undeniably aging franchise.
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But only if he can get over getting over himself. Too much public self-effacement can look like arrogance in disguise — Uriah Heep was a very ‘umble man too. It’s great that Fallon can get Will Smith and U2, Tina Fey and Lady Gaga, but, as Smith pointed out, people will come to the show for him. As one assumes Fallon knows, because he changed Leno’s “The Tonight Show With” back to Carson’s “The Tonight Show Starring.”
Which he will need to start doing soon, since it’s his show now.
Mary McNamara: firstname.lastname@example.org
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