Remember when people used to hate Jimmy Fallon? Okay, hate is a strong word; “disparage” is more like it. People disparaged the hell out of that guy. C’mon, remember those old Fallon jokes? Here, I’ll go first: In 2008, in an A.V. Club story headlined “Fallon (giggle) gets early online debut (giggle),” I injected a trace of light, barely detectable sarcasm into my description of the Late Night host as “that adorable laughmeister” who was about to get “much needed practice keeping it together” via short webisodes scheduled to première before the official start of his talk show the following spring.
Get it? As he joked knowingly last month during his bravura debut as guest host of Saturday Night Live, Fallon was the giggle-guy, the one who “laughed and ruined all those sketches” when he was a cast member on SNL. Then he became the guy who starred in little-loved films and future basic-cable staples like Taxi and Fever Pitch. Then he was the washed-out would-be movie star with the same stupid smirk and dumb bedhead haircut he’d had back in ’98, and who was now supposed to replace the brilliantly funny, not-at-all bitter or disenfranchised pre-Tonight Show golden-age Conan O’Brien on Late Night. The nerve!
I’ve just watched an episode of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon from a few nights ago, and I’m having a hard time reconciling 2008 Jimmy with the Jimmy I just spent 42 minutes with. 2012 Jimmy is so amiable, so disarming, so boyishly infectious, it makes me want to “disparage” the smug character who wrote that A.V. Club news brief three and a half years ago. So what if Jimmy Fallon giggled? Did Jimmy Fallon burn down your childhood home and giggle as the flames consumed your precious Huey Lewis tapes? No? Then what’s your problem, bro? He was just a young guy living his dream! You try keeping a straight face in the company of Horatio Sanz, bub.
In March, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon will celebrate its third anniversary, and if you claim you thought three years ago that in 2012, Fallon would be where he is now as a talk-show host (or even still on the air), you’re either lying, or you own a time machine. Fallon’s transformation from widely derided lightweight—a man assumed to have secret knowledge of where Lorne Michaels keeps the bodies buried in order to continue getting such good jobs—to heir apparent to the King Of Late Night crown is complete and shocking. Jimmy Fallon is now so likeable that it’s actually a cliché to point out how likeable he is. Not only has he become the opposite of what he used to be, he’s made thinking otherwise seem mean-spirited. He is the puppy-basket of late-night talk-show hosts.
The story of Fallon’s fall and rise is told in microcosm via two reviews written by TV critic Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times. Stanley (like much of the press) destroyed Fallon when his show debuted; “he looked nervous, even flustered, at first, and some of the prepared comedy was surprisingly lame,” she wrote, chiding him for his (now prescient) preoccupation with Twitter and his poor interviewing skills, before delivering the coup de grace: “[Fallon] can sometimes seem like an old person’s notion of a hip young comic.”
Ouch! To be fair, all that was true. Even now, Fallon is not great at delivering jokes; during the opening monologue, he has a habit of absentmindedly crossing his hands in front of his waist like a fourth-grader trying to bluff his way through a book report. Back in my Fallon-hating days, my friends and I would relish trainwreck-y interviews with guests like Robert De Niro, which quickly devolved into Chris Farley-esque hero worship. At its absolute (and frequent) worst, the early Late Night With Jimmy Fallon seemed like a barely professional operation.
But when Stanley reassessed Late Night in the Times last month, she had done a 180: She now considers it among the best shows on television, and the most enjoyable in late-night. “Conan O’Brien makes fun of people. Mr. Fallon looks as if he’s having fun,” she wrote, nodding to the unique skill-set he brings as a late-night host. More of an actor than a comedian, Fallon is rightly celebrated for his ability as a mimic—highlighted by dead-on impressions of rock icons like Neil Young and Jim Morrison, as well as standbys like Charlie Sheen and Jerry Seinfeld—but he’s also the best pure performer of any late-night host in the post-Johnny Carson age. It’s simply impossible to imagine another late-night host attempting one of those popular “History Of Hip-Hop” medleys with Justin Timberlake and pulling it off with nearly as much ease or comfort. Speaking of music, there’s no better daily showcase on television for live performances than Late Night, which consistently features up-and-coming bands (à la the old O’Brien and Letterman Late Night programs), not to mention one of the best groups in the country on a nightly basis, The Roots.
O’Brien experienced a similar turnaround a few years after his famously rough debut in 1993. It’s commonly believed that broadcasters need that amount of time to figure out who they are and what they want their shows to be. What makes Fallon’s comeback more impressive is that he was already an established commodity when he started Late Night; he’d been in the public eye for 10 years, giving people ample time to make up their minds about him. And they did, in a mostly negative fashion—yet somehow, he’s been able to change many of those minds the other way.
Jimmy Fallon isn’t the funniest man in late-night; that’s still a toss-up between Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. But Fallon doesn’t try to compete for that distinction. His greatest, most unique gift as a late-night personality is that he doesn’t have to be funny to be entertaining. There are episodes of Late Night where I’m pretty sure I never laughed out loud once. I don’t know if I can recall a single Fallon one-liner off the top of my head. Nobody is going to accuse Fallon of being a comic genius. This is a good thing. Not being saddled with that baggage seems to make Fallon a lot more relaxed than his peers. Compared with the sweat-drenched desperation that’s so obviously apparent in Jay Leno or even the all-time favorite of comedy nerdom, O’Brien—the compulsive need to always be funny that’s alienating when the comedy isn’t working—Fallon is appealing in the manner of the popular kid in school. Yes, his good looks and confidence might make you hate him at first, but after a while, it’s just nice to be around someone who’s comfortable in his own skin.
Which is why it's been suggested that Fallon—more than O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Stewart, or Colbert—has the brightest future of any late-night host. People will disagree on who’s funniest, but Fallon has the market cornered on likeable. Even people like me who once couldn't stand the guy have warmed to him. Of course, that’s assuming there are still late-night talk shows in five years. But even if there aren’t, the tech-savvy Fallon will probably be available as iPhone’s most pleasant talk-show-host app.