[8 October 2009]
The media paid so much attention to the dramas surrounding the Tonight Show’s changing of the guard, we almost forgot all about Late Night. Shame on us. Late Night launched the careers of the two best post-Carson late-night hosts, David Letterman and Conan O’Brien. Both Letterman and O’Brien perfected their unique and deeply personal show styles at Late Night. I like to think of Late Night as a comedy laboratory. In the wake of Carson’s retirement, Conan’s Late Night and Dave’s Late Show became the top television booking in American comedy.
The next Late Night host needed to bring that same comedic ingenuity, that same fearless resolve. Whoever donned the lab coat needed to create his own brand. Who could it be? An up-and-coming comic, like David? A complete unknown, like Conan?
“Paging Dr. Fallon…Dr.Fallon, please pick up.”
Jimmy Fallon? Really? I smacked my head when I heard the news. I never thought Jimmy was very talented during his years at SNL. He hosted Weekend Update, but never managed to steal any of Tina Fey’s spotlight.
To me, Jimmy’s ascension to the Late Night chair illustrated again how large a role the Machiavelli of American comedy, Lorne Michaels, plays in the direction of NBC late-night television. Lorne propped Conan into Dave’s seat when Dave left for CBS. For his troubles, Lorne snagged a producer credit.
I imagined Lorne, after hearing of Conan’s promotion, artfully putting the seat out on the table as a prize for that select sycophant. A strong personality would never bend themselves so thoroughly to Lorne’s will.
But Jimmy? What else was this guy cut out to do? The films Lorne handed him disappeared without a trace. Jimmy was well on his way to becoming the white Tim Meadows.
And then his phone rang. With an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Lorne’s success with Late Night with Conan O’Brien notwithstanding, I held little hope for a Fallon Late Night. He seemed too overtly cute, and not nearly bright enough. I can admit when I’m wrong. After I watched the Fallon Late Night for a week, I was more than pleasantly surprised.
I tuned into Jimmy a few times early in his run. He had the typical problems of a first-time host. The pacing was off. Many of the sketches were ill-considered. The early big-name guests only heightened Jimmy’s nervous energy.
None of these put me off the show. The Late Night legacy is intimidating. It took Conan a good year to figure out what direction his show would follow. Even with the greater experience, Jimmy was certain to encounter a few early bumps.
The curtain raised on a much more confident and in control Jimmy on the Monday I began my review. He still sped through his monologue, but more of his jokes stuck. I was particularly fond of one joke on Tuesday night.
“Scientists have discovered a topical crème for erectile dysfunction. [Appropriate pause] Yeah, it’s called lotion.”
That one joke generated more mirth than a week of Craig Ferguson.
After the monologue, Jimmy introduces the Roots. What a great house band pick! I saw the Roots a few years back at Chicago’s House of Blues and they blew the roof off the place. At first I thought the Roots made a mistake. Now, I think Questlove and the boys will reach an even bigger audience. And they lend NBC some much needed hipness.
The camera returns to Jimmy, now seated. At this point, he breaks off for either a sketch or an audience participation activity. None of these killed on the nights I watched (although the ‘Head Swap’ sketch from Tuesday night was pretty clever), but they brought quick smiles.
On Monday night, Jimmy played a game with the audience called ‘Empty Your Pocket’. Three audience members emptied out their purses and pockets on a table and Jimmy had to answer a question about them just from those contents. Jimmy would find out if he was correct from a different version of ‘Grammy-winning artist Bob Seger’ (Queen Elizabeth Bob Seger, Astronaut Bob Seger).
One female participant emptied about six cameras onto the table, even though they are forbidden inside the studio. After sincere laughter, she and Jimmy took each other’s photos at the same time. In these and other interactions with the audience, Jimmy showed a natural, genuine likeability.
He may still be a bit too precious. But you get the feeling that’s just who he is.
When Jimmy returns from commercial break, the first guests take their seats. During the week I watched the guests ranged from ‘going to be on again and again’ (Seth Myers, Amy Poehler) to ‘fairly difficult’ (Clive Owens) to ‘unbelievably useless’ (Megan Fox) to ‘last time as first guest anywhere’ (Julianna Margulies). Two SNL vets booked in the same week reminded me of the early days of Conan, when Ellen Cleghorne practically lived on his couch. But Clive Owens and Megan Fox demonstrate that, for now, Jimmy can book A-level talent.
Jimmy played a game with each of the first guests (except Megan Fox, but more on that later). Some worked better than others. The dodgeball game between the Myers brothers and Chris Paul and Jimmy was hilarious. It reminded me of the Letterman Late Night. The Clive Owens dart match was not the most exciting television, but it got the stiff Brit off the couch and active. The games allow an outlet for Jimmy’s energy and should give him plenty of ‘viral video moments’ if his writers can stay creative.
Back to Megan Fox. I only know her from magazine covers. I’ve never seen one of her films. And that’s not likely to change after her interview Thursday night. She explained to Jimmy that she couldn’t stand dry paper. Yes, paper. The central vehicle for literacy. She uploads or downloads (she didn’t seem too sure) her scripts to her Kindle. How often do you think that script gets read? Jimmy also didn’t play a game with her after the break, because, well…what the heck could he do with her?
The show ends each night with a performance from a band or stand-up. The audience circles the performer, similar to the old days of SNL. Live music plays so much more intimate on television if you can see audience reaction. Jimmy should have no problems booking the hot new indie bands, even if Phoenix was the only band that week that interested me.
Jimmy’s Late Night will be a much more goofy, pop-culture centric, spontaneous affair than either his predecessors. He and his producers want to make the show feel as ‘live’ as possible, and so far so good. Any host who can ask an imposing Clive Owens if he just spit on him (he did) will get this reviewer to stay up and watch.
‘No Tie. No Desk. No Rules.’ This is the motto of the new Last Call with Carson Daly. Yes, there is no desk and Carson wears no ties. But this show is as standard-issue as they come. Sure, I’d rather watch Carson all day than get subjected to Ryan Seacrest for a minute. If somebody needs to take up Dick Clark’s crown as King Media Tool, I won’t mind if’s Carson. Unfortunately, his show remains an afterthought.
The new Last Call, with no studio and Carson reporting in from various beacons of cool, reminded me a lot of old pre-Carson MTV. Except instead of the latest Mr. Big video, we get Carson sit-downs with Stan Lee and Mekhi Phifer. Carson still makes me cringe when he says things like (to Mekhi Phifer) “I haven’t seen you in a minute.” At least Ryan Seacrest never needs to make himself sound ‘down’.
If you need to hear packaged promo spots and blatant shout outs to major corporations, Carson’s your man. But if it’s sleep vs. Carson, sleep wins.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/112849-tbd/