After the hype, Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Tonight Show’ is strangely muted

By Mary Mcnamara

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 18 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

In this photo provided by NBC, Jimmy Fallon appears during his "The Tonight Show" debut on Monday, Feb. 17, 2014, in New York. Fallon departed from the network's “Late Night” on Feb. 7, 2014, after five years as host, and is now the host of “The Tonight Show,” replacing Jay Leno after 22 years. (AP Photo/NBC, Lloyd Bishop)

Lloyd Bishop, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

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.

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