A confession: unless I’m specifically watching a late-night show to review it, it’s been ages since I’ve sat down and watched an episode of one, live, from beginning to end, and as long as I have a DVR, I’m not sure I ever will. (Exception: sometimes, The Daily Show and Colbert.)
So I usually don’t have a “favorite” late-night show so much ones that I’ll rely on for certain specialties. I’ll often skip Conan’s monologue, but he still has some of the best prepared comedy bits. Letterman, I may watch only for the monologue. Craig Ferguson, I’ll fast-forward to a particular interview or monologue run that I heard was sharp.*
And Jimmy Fallon? I was skeptical of him when his show started, but even if I might not say he’s the best late-night host out there, he’s currently the one I have the best time watching. It’s not his monologue (no more of a draw for me than Conan’s). It’s not necessarily his comedy bits (though some, like his Downton Sixbey spoof, absolutely kill). Mostly it’s just the infectious sense of enjoyment he gets from, and gives to his show. And a big part of that is his use of music.
Late-night shows, especially late-late-night shows, have long been important for exposing and breaking bands. But from the get-go, Fallon has done an exceptional job of fully integrating music in every aspect of his entertainment. Part of that was his brilliant choice of The Roots as house band; they’ve become accompanyists, co-conspirators and a kind of musical Greek chorus.
And there is, famously, how well he’s integrated music with his comedy itself: from his History of Rap performances to singing “Whip My Hair” with Springsteen (as Neil Young) to Slow-Jamming the News to a toy-instrument duet with Carly Rae Jepsen long after I thought any “Call me Maybe” video could amuse me anymore. (Fallon recently released a music compilation, Blow Your Pants Off, from the show.)
Unusually—but totally in character for his show—Fallon doesn’t generally do song parodies. Most of his most memorable music-comedy segments are animated more by a spirit of play: not, “Look how funny this song is!” but “Look how funny it is that I’m doing this song!” Where many hosts post-Letterman have conveyed a sense of acid snarkiness, or Carson did detached cool, Fallon trades more in eagerness and wonder, and he fits his music to those lyrics. He doesn’t make fun (of his subjects), he makes fun (with his subjects).
Then there are his straight-up musical acts, well-curated, well-backed by The Roots and increasingly well-positioned: see Frank Ocean, who went on Fallon this week as he digitally released his new album. Here too, the show benefits from Fallon’s character; his enthusiasm for music makes the performances seem like more than tacked-on segments in which the host’s main role is simply to point his arm and step back. I can’t say Jimmy Fallon is The King of Late-Night yet. But he’s got a good beat, and I can dance to him.
*[Update: I didn't mean this to be a comprehensive list, but I should also mention Jimmy Kimmel, who's become probably the most purely funny guy in late night when he's on, though I'm not wild about his interviews. And Leno? Guy knows his cars!]