I have a confession to make: I don’t hate Jimmy Fallon.
I know the conventional wisdom holds that Fallon presided over some of the weakest seasons of Saturday Night Live, dominating skit after skit with his frat-boy humor and perpetual smirk, like some kind of unholy synthesis of Adam Sandler and Mike Myers. But I always found in Fallon a certain what-the-hell charm—a kind of “I’ll try anything” brio that marks a consummate entertainer. And I liked the interplay between the bratty Fallon and the schoolmarmish Tina Fey on Weekend Update. Outside of Norm McDonald’s shock theater and the early years of Dennis Miller’s acid sarcasm, the Fey/Fallon team may have been Update at its best.
The problem is that Fallon’s particular comic sensibility is best suited to the skech/variety format. And maybe supporting character parts. As a leading man in movies, he was a big nothing; and I can’t imagine him anchoring a sitcom. And frankly, after watching the first episode of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, I’m not so sure that hosting a talk show is the ideal gig for him either.
Of course it’s unfair to judge a late night talk show host based on one episode. (Certainly it took Conan O’Brien a while to find his stride.) So the real question is: Does Fallon show potential?
That largely depends on what direction he goes from here. Fallon’s first Late Night was split fairly equally between painfully fumbly interview segments and hit-and-miss prepared comedy routines. On the latter count, the show opened well, with Fallon getting ready in Conan’s old dressing while Conan himself hung around in the background, somewhat forlornly, warning Fallon that after a big opening week of guests like Robert DeNiro and Justin Timberlake he’ll have to settle for the dregs. (I’m not sure Fallon’s mention of Right Said Fred and ex-Survivor contestant Gervais as potential guests really put a sharp enough stinger on the bit, but it was still amusing.) The rest of the prepared sketches ranged from the fairly funny but overly SNL-ish salute to Blonde Mothers From Connecticut (“they always look less sick and sad than their brunette counterparts”) to the not-that-funny but encouragingly bizarre game show Lick It For Ten (in which members of the studio audience were encouraged to lick things for money).
Fallon’s monologue was pretty deadly. The jokes were lame, his delivery was mushy and rushed, and having him perform in front of a curtain, Carson-style, made for some unhelpful comparisons. (At least the band could’ve given Fallon a rimshot after the punchlines, so he wouldn’t have had to stand there awkwardly waiting for laughs that were slow in coming.) Generally speaking, Fallon’s mumbly patter was the biggest problem with his performance on this first show, and speaking as someone who’s a lifelong stammerer/fast-talker, I know that getting over-excited and being unable to articulate is a hard habit to break. Even as Fallon gets past his opening night jitters, I think his slurring and rapidity is going to be a problem.
He’s also going to have to learn how to interview. Last night he was lobbed a couple of softballs: a surprisingly game Robert DeNiro, who participated in a stupid Space Train skit and (sort of) played along with Fallon’s attempt to ask questions with one word answers; and Fallon’s old SNL collaborator Justin Timberlake, who did funny impressions of John Mayer and Michael McDonald and just generally seemed far more at ease in front of the camera than the host. But with both guests, Fallon panicked, launching into clumsy “Isn’t this weird?” speeches that he intended to deflate the tension but which only made the segments drag all the more. Fallon needs to shut up; let the guest do more of the work.
The show ended fairly well with Van Morrison singing “Sweet Thing,” in what turned out to be a miniature version of Fallon’s debut: it started out mush-mouthed, then wrapped up nicely, with a touch of improvisation. Fallon showed in his monologue that he has a facility with ad-libs, and that he has the right amount of self-loathing required for a late-night host. I don’t know that he’s ever going to be great at this job, but with time and practice he should at least get more confident and less train-wreck-y.
-Jimmy Fallon has Robert DeNiro’s e-mail address. That blows my mind.
-DeNiro entered to the theme from Taxi, which was pretty funny.
-The hazy cityscapes behind the chat-spot makes it look as though Fallon and his guests were sitting in front of a green screen.
-Skip Van Morrison’s live re-do of Astral Weeks, by the way. It’s kind of turgid. Stick with the original.
-Fallon’s house band is The Roots, which strikes me as a bit odd. How long can they stick around? Don’t they have albums to record and such? Anyway, they sounded great.
-Fallon’s announcer is Steve Higgins, from Higgins Boys & Gruber fame. Which gives me another excuse to post this: