It was May 2008, like I’ve been prone to do from time to time, I was thinking about the landscape of Late Night television. Conan O’Brien was set to replace Jay Leno at the Tonight Show in 2009, leaving a vacancy at the 12:37 time slot.
I figured NBC would tap Jon Stewart as Conan’s successor, given Stewart’s immense success on The Daily Show. Which, in turn, would leave a vacancy at The Daily Show desk.
Jimmy Fallon had flamed out in Hollywood (I still maintain Taxi is underrated) and although he had a fantastic SNL career, he’s SNL stint had been overshadowed by his propensity to break on stage. He became a favorite target of Family Guy, snarky bloggers and comedy nerds. Even with the lull in his career I maintained faith.
After Will Ferrell left, Fallon carried SNL on his shoulders appearing in seemingly every sketch, while also exchanging sexual chemistry with Tina Fey on Weekend Update. He did one of the best VMA hosting jobs of all-time. Plus he had a real arsenal of comedy talent; he did spot on impressions, studied improv at the Groundlings, could strap on a guitar and do song parodies and had a background in stand-up.
Jimmy Fallon was my pick to succeed Jon Stewart as the most trusted man in fake news. He wouldn’t be as cutting as Stewart, but I felt he could bring his own unique brand of irreverence to the news parody game.
I started thinking about what The Daily Show with Jimmy Fallon would look like, then NBC made an announcement. Jimmy Fallon would follow in the footsteps of David Letterman and Conan O’Brien and take over Late Night. Now it was time to start thinking about what Late Night with Jimmy Fallon would look like.
As I recall the Jimmy Fallon pick was met with some considerable backlash. Comedy nerds were slow to embrace Jimmy Fallon’s boy next door -aw shucks – brand of comedy (especially considering Conan was one of their own). Blogs were quick to point out, The Bathroom Wall, Fever Pitch and Taxi as failed projects from the SNL alum. While Family Guy disciples followed Seth Macfarlane’s word as gospel. I didn’t cower though. I went to bat for Jimmy, pointing out the Barry Gibb talk show, Nick Burns computer guy, and his VMA performance as proof that he had what it took.
On March 2, 2009, my roommate (a Jimmy Fallon doubter) and I watched the first episode of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Jimmy came out and was clearly nervous. He ran through his monologue which was weak and alarmingly short. He introduced a new game called, “Lick it for Ten.” The premise, three audience member would come down and lick random items (a printer, a bowling ball, ect.) and Jimmy would pay them ten bucks. It was terrible. Then he interviewed screen legend Robert Deniro, an odd pick for a first guest considering his utter lack of personalty. In the mist of a truly awkward interview Jimmy had a sudden attack of flop sweat ala Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. Next he had on Justin Timberlake and while Jimmy seemed more comfortable, Justin also did a bit of overshadowing. When it was all over my roommate gave me an impish smile and asked, “What did you think?”
All late night hosts go through a pretty tough learning curve. When Leno first took over the Tonight Show he was nearly canned nine months in (he was saved by hiding in a closet and eavesdropping on executives, true story), when Conan took over Late Night he was so bad they gave him a week by week contract (insulting to say the least), and when Kimmel started at ABC he was basically unwatchable for the first year and a half. I knew Fallon would most likely stumble out the blocks, and he did, but I definitely enjoyed the first show. Maybe it was me blindly standing by my guy, but I thought Jimmy did a pretty solid job considering it was his first time. He had an infectious energy, got the crowd involved and it was all sort of weird (in a good way).
The next night Jimmy had Tina Fey on, and he was locked in. My roommate, who only the night before was reveling in Jimmy’s failures, looked over to me and said, “he was good tonight…but he still needs a better monologue.” Over the next few months the comedy nerds converted, the blogs started singing his praises and the Family Guy disciples evaporated. In a remarkably fast time (relatively speaking) he had picked up the craft of late night host and was winning over insomniacs and scoring on the internet.
Then Jimmy got a shot at prime time. He was chosen to host the 62nd annual Primetime Emmy Awards. He opened the show like only he could. He enlisted a ton of celebrity cohorts, parodied Glee and rocked out to some Bruce. His hosting job was met with rave reviews and the audience loved it.
Today the Daily Beast ranked the “Most Valuable Late Night Hosts”, by seeing who get’s the most “bang for their buck.” The winner, you guessed it, Jimmy Fallon. I feel like a proud parent right now.