When Conan O’Brien was preparing his eponymous TBS talk show, he spoke to the press about how excited he was to have the freedom to do whatever he wanted. Coming off his live tour and his unceremonious firing from NBC, this was going to be his chance for a big reinvention. It turned out, though, that all he really wanted to do was exactly what he used to do on Late Night, just a little earlier. Conan was still a talk show—monologue, sketch, interviews, musical guest, stay tuned for Lopez Tonight. The talk-show format claimed another victory in its recent history of being completely unexceptional in and of itself; not even celebrated raconteur Conan O’Brien could/wanted to shake things up.
But if anyone should have the power to change the way late-night television is consumed, it should be Jimmy Fallon. Watching his show this week, including his live Super Bowl special, I couldn’t help but feel that talk-show constraints and staples are holding him back. His monologues each night are stilted and hurried, as if he can’t wait to get to the punchline. There are sketches that are pure, giddy fun that I wish could have gone on for much longer, but had to end so as not to upstage the big star of the night. Take Jimmy Fallon and his writing staff, give them carte blance to create a Fallon vehicle from scratch, and I’d be thrilled to see what they come up with.
I was much more skeptical when Fallon first stepped into the Late Night role vacated by O’Brien in 2009. I was one of those viewers: the people who watched Fallon’s debut and wondered just what the hell Lorne Michaels was thinking. But I’ve really taken a shining to the little guy since then. The story of how Fallon went from being the redheaded stepchild of late night television to the affable host he is today has been chronicled everywhere, including this fabulous piece by our own Steve Hyden. And I saw it firsthand this week. Even when jokes aren’t really working, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon is still a really pleasant place to hang out.
Much of this is because Fallon is extremely willing to make a fool of himself. Announcing that the Cranberries were going to be on the show, he excitedly listed all the songs they’ve done, then sang small segments of each of them. It was a good three or four minutes before he moved on, but it didn’t bother me; he got such a kick out of his terrible Dolores O’Riordan impression that there was no reason to stop him. On a different show, he started singing the words, “I would hide in your hair in a storm,” and just kept singing them, each time getting longer and more committed to doing it well. The Roots joined in near the end, first with the drums then with other instruments and back-up vocals. It’s ridiculous that with so much show to get through, Fallon would spend so much time on this little ditty (he even calls it back later with one of the guests), but these are the little unplanned moments that make Fallon’s show so charming.
He’s not just a fun guy to be around from the audience’s perspective. He has the ability to make his guests feel entirely at ease, and can make them go along with the oddest premises for sketches. Vanessa Hudgens was on the show a few days ago, and she’s such a bubbly personality that Fallon could have easily sat back and let her steal the show. (Also, never thought I’d have such an affinity for Vanessa Hudgens, but she seriously was great.) Instead, Fallon embraced her energy and took her on a round of shoegolf through the studio, goading her to take tough shots and heckling her when she gets stuck behind a rusty chest of drawers in the prop shop. Zooey Deschanel came on to promote her upcoming Saturday Night Live appearance, and it devolved into a game of Catchphrase during which Fallon laughed for a solid two minutes because he tried to get his audience partner to guess “guitar pick” by saying the word “guitar.” This made Deschanel much more comfortable when she stammered her way through one of the clues later on.
When not involving the guests for the night, Fallon’s sketches are even weirder. At the beginning of the week, Fallon had three audience volunteers come up on stage, take out their cellphone cameras, and take pictures of a roulette-style screen that awarded them prizes based on what their photo picked up. One person won a brass pole; another the chance to play “pass the orange” with Seth Herzog in the guise of a bright-eyed lothario. Fallon also takes a straightforward audience participation sketch and ramps up the goof factor; in his rap-battle sketch, where three guests have a freestyle showdown, he assigned each one random words that they have to include, like “Cee Lo Green” and “Cabbage Patch Kids.” He also did another rendition of “He Said, She Said,” which is kind of like Jay Leno’s headlines bit but with stock photos—and much more creativity.
The more I watched the show, the more I realized I could watch an entire hour with Fallon doing these sorts of sketches, and having a ton of fun with a guest or two. As great as the Deschanel segment was (and no matter how much “adorkable” fatigue you might feel, it melted away once she took the stage), it had to be followed by the usually awesome Chris Hardwick, sitting for a few minutes to promote upcoming projects. If I didn’t know anything about Hardwick before his appearance, I wouldn’t be very inclined to check out his YouTube channel or his site. There just wasn’t enough time for Hardwick to show much personality, and the segment falls for the “show, don’t tell” problem. Jon Glaser suffers a similar fate, his bit pushed to the end of an episode with only enough time to include a silly photo from an upcoming episode of Delocated.
Fallon’s Super Bowl special unfortunately encapsulated the worst of his tendencies. The audience was simply thrilled to be part of such a “big deal” show, but the entire thing felt like an exercise in just throwing the show up as fast as possible. His big guests, Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg, promoted a movie that comes out in June by letting Sandler make his dumb little voices. Samberg nearly saved the segment by bringing up the fact that he imitated Fallon for his SNL audition (and that Fallon imitated Sandler for his), but at that point the interview was basically more about cheering for famous people than concerned with being interesting. Then a few of the Giants came out, an inevitability that didn’t really have the chance to be Fallon-ized in any way. They just spoke about how happy they were to win the Super Bowl— and not that I expected them to do anything else, but the whole thing was almost larger than Fallon himself.
Much of Fallon’s success has come from owning up to his faults. He laughs at himself, and when that happens he digs even more into the funny. Fallon’s sketches are a hell of a lot of fun because he’s legitimately excited to see them succeed. His ease with guests and genuine excitement to have them on his show makes their appearances something to look forward to. I would personally watch the hell out of a version of Late Night that involved only sketches, one guest for half the show like a mini-SNL hosting gig, and a musical guest. No monologue, no extraneous guests to fill time. As much as people like to hate on Carson Daly, at least he fits the format of the show around the material he gets every day, and I feel like Fallon would kill for that kind of freedom. (I did get a kick out of a few monologue jokes, like, “Kodak filed for bankruptcy. More on this story as it develops,” but that sort of writing could easily find its way into a different format.) This is a show where a guy in full wolf regalia comes out, and Fallon gives a monologue about the “call of the Wolf Waker” as this menacing dude stares into the camera under the hot glow of a spotlight for three minutes. It’s the kind of show where Michelle Obama can costar in a video and go along for the ride just because it’s Jimmy Fallon. Maybe some day, Fallon will have the chance to reinvent the talk show, but for now he’s knocking it out of the park with what he has.