The credits of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, appropriately enough for a show produced by Lorne Michaels and starring an SNL alum, look and sound an awful lot like an SNL credits sequence. The difference: they feature just one guy, Fallon, and he is running, furiously, as hard as he can, as if he thinks that, if he sprints fast enough, he can escape the title sequence itself. Which is appropriate enough: the first episode of Fallon’s late-night outing found him edgy, laboring, legs churning furiously to outrun his image as the Weekend Update guy.
Did he make it? It is, of course, unfair to judge after one episode, as even Fallon’s competitor Craig Ferguson has told us. A late-night show is, in a way, one evolving performance; grading it after one day, or even a few, is like reviewing a movie after the first opening title.
That said, we can take a few stabs at the tone, aims and challenges of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. For starters: his booker must hate him. How else do you explain putting Robert DeNiro on as Fallon’s very first guest ever? DeNiro’s a huge star, but his reticence is no joke, and the sit-down quickly had Fallon trying to entertain DeNiro with anecdotes, as if he were the guest on his own show. (Fallon’s imitation of Taxi Driver’s DeNiro appearing in Fallon’s movie Taxi was amusing, and probably the entire reason for the booking.) By the time we moved on to Justin Timberlake’s (very funny) John Mayer and Michael McDonald imitations, DeNiro seemed like he did not want to be on the couch any longer.
On the plus side, The Roots are proving an excellent choice for a house band, tight, versatile and even funny. (I liked the Slow-Jammin’ the News segment; I don’t know if I’d like it more than once, but I liked it.)
Fallon’s monologue was understandably nervous and unremarkable joke-wise, but there were glimmers of potential. When he played off an unruly loud guy in the audience—”I hate it when my dad drinks”—he showed that he at least has the potential to learn to roll with live TV.
But the structure and the fact of the monologue seems to indicate that Fallon intends to deliver a very typical jokes-sketches-and-sitdowns late-night show, with a few nods to his generation (like the “Lick It for Ten” bit, which recalled MTV’s I Bet You Will… from a few years ago) and to his geeky side (fittingly, the Microsoft joke was the best of his monologue). There was nothing of the unpredictability, for instance, of the boozy, loose, interesting-trainwreck early episodes of Jimmy Kimmel.
If there was one impression Fallon’s first show left (besides jitters), it’s determination. Although Fallon worshipped David Letterman—as is now obligatory for white male late-night hosts—I’m not sure he’s best utilized in an arch, hyperironic Letterman-style show. What Fallon exudes most as a host is earnestness. He has this emo, Ted Mosby-like quality to him. He’s really into you, America; he thinks you’re awesome, he wants you to like him, and he isn’t embarrassed about showing it. “Thank you for having me in your homes,” he enthused, “I’m honored to be here.” That’s not necessarily bad; it’s just that, like anyone going courting, he will have to walk the line between romance and neediness.
This heart-on-his-sleeve carried over into the aggressive product pitches, from Bud Light Lime to his urging, after Van Morrison’s performance, to go to “Borders, Barnes & Noble, Target, Walmart, Best Buy and get this amazing record, or you can get it online at Amazon.com.” (What about iTunes, Jimmy? You’re missing a potential revenue source!) The placements may have been written ironically—in that familiar 30 Rock way—but the attitude of the host seemed anything but: I will do what it takes to make this work; I will work as hard as I can; I will pitch the products and plug the sponsors and do the video blog; I will keep my legs pumping and do what you have to do.
What Fallon has to do, like any new host—and again, it’s been one show, people—is to learn how to be not the last guy but the next guy. He’s not a Dave or a Conan—nor an old-Hollywood gladhander like Jay—but perhaps if he can get comfortable there may be a place in late night for a slightly more earnest Jimmy. I’m guessing, anyway, that he will keep running, running, running at full steam until he gets there, or until someone tells him the race is over.