For Jimmy Fallon, Variety Is the Spice of Tonight

If you were asked to assemble a two-hour prime time special based on highlights extracted from a contemporary late-night show, your first choice might logically be Jimmy Fallon’s run hosting The Tonight Show.

Why? Simply because Fallon’s show has been so clearly highlight-able over its decade-long run back in New York City, where the NBC late-night franchise created this distinctly American genre of entertainment 70(!) years ago.

Fallon’s Tonight Show has been distinguished by an array of its own style of comedy segments, signature “bits,” SNL-style sketches, all sorts of games, and musical performances, the best of which have not only enjoyed consistent interest on YouTube and social media, but also work well as snippets representing the show’s most memorable material.

As will be evident on NBC tonight at 9 (streaming on Peacock starting tomorrow) in the two-hour 10th anniversary special of the version of  Tonight starring Fallon, the show’s sixth official host. 

His Tonight Show is defined, Fallon says, less by the familiar late-night framework—monologue, guest, guest, music act—than by an effort to emulate a much older entertainment form: the variety show. That goal has been aided immeasurably by contributions from his outstanding house band, The Roots.

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“Variety shows, they’re going away,” Fallon said last week during a Q&A after a special screening of the special in New York City. “They’re a rare thing.”  He and his staff do sometimes limit themselves to coloring between the familiar monologue-guests-music late-night lines, he said, but “it’s always a goal to do variety.”

That only makes sense because the variety show creates opportunities that are exploitable in digital formats (the show has accumulated 85 million followers on social media) and matches up well with the talents Fallon brings to the assignment of late-night host.

Most of the enduring hosts have been essentially comics turned broadcasters—Carson, Letterman, Leno, Arsenio, Stewart, Noah—with the rest being a mix carrying resumes topped by skills derived from other areas: sketch (Colbert), musical comedy (Steve Allen, James Corden), witty conversation (Jack Paar, Dick Cavett), radio repartee (Jimmy Kimmel), and even comedy writing (Conan O’Brien, Seth Meyers).

Fallon’s own resume does not line up with those names in each individual area; but he stands out for his range of talents: he does stand-up (though without an intense emphasis on political humor that characterizes other hosts); he’s accomplished as a singer, guitarist, sketch performer, and is an especially facile impressionist. Every one of those skills individually can help a late-night host get through five shows a week. Fallon brings that whole package with him to the chair behind the desk.

Which is why it was a bit unexpected that he did not realize earlier on that late night was likely his most fruitful career path after he emerged as a breakout cast member of Saturday Night Live in the 1990’s. He was instead initially lured by movies.

After the screening last week, Fallon told me, “I didn’t see it,” of the fit with late night. “But Lorne saw it.”

Lorne Michaels, the SNL creator who is now executive producer of both The Tonight Show and Late Night, has directed careers of all types of talented funny people in his half-century running SNL. He identified Fallon as having great potential as a late-night host, both because of that range of talent and, even more-so, by the likeability he conveyed to audiences. Michaels first installed Fallon as host of NBC’s Late Night when Conan departed in 2009, and then into Tonight when Jay Leno left in 2014.

Fallon has now led the show longer than anyone except Carson and Leno. He is approaching the 2000-show mark.

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That translates to plenty of material to work into the special. “It was tough making choices,” Fallon says. “We could have done the whole special just from appearances by Will Ferrell. Or Ryan Reynolds and Justin Timberlake; that could have been the whole show.”

But the special had many more familiar moments to choose from, including “Slow-Jamming the News,” most memorably with then-President Obama; impressions of singers ranging from Dylan to Springsteen; tight-pants” showdowns with Will Ferrell; barber-shop quartet harmonizing with guests like Tina Fey; and those infectiously appealing music performances on toy schoolroom instruments, featuring The Roots, Fallon, and big-name artists like The Who, Ringo, and Madonna.

Obama’s visit, and his willingness to play along doing “Slow Jam” (a second time, Obama had done one during Fallon’s run on Late Night) remains a “pinch-me” moment, Fallon says. “It was just exciting TV. It was electric. It was like; I can’t believe this is happening.”

Fallon is approaching his 50th birthday, incongruously, given his undiminished interested in fun and games—all sorts of games— on his show. Is he going to stick around another decade?

The answer would seem to be: if invited he will serve.

“I’m standing behind those curtains and we have 10 to 15 jokes ready to go, all about the news that happened that day. And The Roots are slaying and I’m like: I’m stepping into the ring. Then the curtains open and it’s that shot of adrenaline. You get caffeinated and you’re ready to wake up. And we’re putting on a show.”

Indeed he is. The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon 10th Anniversary Special airs on NBC tonight at 9pm, and streams tomorrow on Peacock

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