I was wrong about Jimmy Fallon. When he was originally named, with Lorne Michaels’ backing, as Conan O’Brien’s replacement as host of Late Night, I was skeptical. He was a talented enough performer on Saturday Night Live, but where was there any sign that he had the point-of-view, the comedic vision, to run a late-night show? When his Late Night debuted, I gave it a decently positive review, but I also thought he came off a little overeager to please.
Four years later, I see what Michaels saw in him. What came off early as overeagerness was something much better: sheer pleasure, the infectious enthusiasm of a guy who loves showing people a good time. As I wrote, revisiting the show a couple years later, it was fitting that Fallon made musical comedy the hallmark of his show. His Late Night was about letting your hair down and being goofy; it was more about joyous music than cutting lyrics. There’s a lot of forced feel-goodism in pop culture–the sort of corporatized positivity the Lego movie lampoons with “Everything Is Awesome”–but Fallon’s delight was the genuine article, which is rarer than anything.
Fallon takes over Tonight next week, and I wrote my column in this week’s print TIME (subscription required) about what his positivity might mean for him as Tonight host:
That may mean he is a safer choice for Tonight, but it’s also a radical departure from recent late-show history. The late-night recipe has been three parts vinegar ever since David Letterman transformed the genre more than 30 years ago… The comedy of crankiness and critique can be hilarious, smart, even passionate (see Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert). But it leaves a market opening for positivity. Fallon–who has made social media more central to his show than anyone but maybe Kimmel–has shown on TV what Facebook taught the online world: the power of the Like. Just as viral-media sites like Upworthy have hit it big by creating enthusiastic content that people of a wide range of ages and tastes feel O.K. sharing on their News Feeds, Fallon makes inclusionary comedy for millennials and their moms.
I’m generally even wronger when it comes to ratings predictions, and the long-term trends in late night are for smaller audiences for anyone. But I can at least guess that Fallon’s style gives him the best chance of holding on to some kind of broad audience, as best as anyone can in a fragmented media culture.
I’ll be on vacation next week when Fallon takes over, so it may be a while before I review his new Tonight (just as well, because you really need a larger sample size to judge a nightly late show). But will you be watching?
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