[4 March 2009]
You have to give Jimmy Fallon credit for one thing: He has pretty great taste in music.
The house band for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” which premiered Monday night on NBC, is the outstanding Philadelphia hip-hop/R&B band the Roots. Closing out Fallon’s jittery first show was the legendary Van Morrison. And guest Justin Timberlake provided comic relief by imitating John Mayer, Barry Gibb and Michael McDonald during his stint on Fallon’s couch.
Apparently NBC doesn’t want to give the Roots their own show (more’s the pity). And on talk shows and “Saturday Night Live,” Timberlake always seems completely at ease - no doubt any network would give him a show in a heartbeat.
But, well, for now, we’ve got Jimmy Fallon. At one point during his opening interview with Robert DeNiro, Fallon was sweating profusely. Sweaty, tense, uptight, nervous, wound-up, keyed up - pick an adjective. Any one of them would describe Fallon’s demeanor on opening night.
“I’m very nervous,” he said to DeNiro. There was need to point it out - we could tell.
Of course, it isn’t fair to judge a late-night host by his first outing. We’ll have to see if, in a few weeks, Fallon still looks like he’s had four too many double-espressos before the show.
But it is still valid to wonder if Fallon is suited to this gig. On a late-night show, either the non-interview comedic bits have to be inspired, or the interviews have to be smooth (in a perfect world, both halves of the late-night formula succeed). But, with a few exceptions, neither worked all that well during Fallon’s first show. The comedy frequently fell flat, and as a host, Fallon is underwhelming at the moment.
One thing that did work: A bit in which Fallon sang a “slow jam” version of the news succeeded, in large part, thanks to Roots’ typically taut playing and singer Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter’s impeccable voice and surprisingly good comic timing.
Timberlake’s musical impressions were funny, but, this being the we-shill-anything-anytime era at NBC, one of the singer’s impressions involved a pitch for a beer. The uncomfortable-looking DeNiro isn’t a great late-night guest, but at least Fallon had the sense to draw attention to the actor’s reticence. He even said he’d devised a series of questions that required one-word answers, but DeNiro occasionally was generous enough to give Fallon four-word answers. The minutes flew by like hours.
At least the show opened on a humorous note, with Fallon finding Conan O’Brien, the previous “Late Night” host, in his dressing room. Fallon asked if O’Brien would be taking over Jay Leno’s old dressing room when Leno steps down from “The Tonight Show,” which O’Brien is taking over.
“Jay’s not leaving,” O’Brien said in a strained voice.
What followed was frequently strained as well. Fallon’s monologue was surprisingly bland and free of zingers, and he hasn’t yet mastered the trick of reading from cue cards or a Teleprompter without blatantly appearing to do so.
A pre-taped piece about the show’s pursuit of a coveted demographic - blonde mothers - was a waste of time. Slightly better was “Lick it for $10,” an audience-challenge game that gave off a low-budget “Price Is Right” vibe. “Space Train,” a brief vignette starring DeNiro and Fallon, was achingly unfunny.
These were bits that Fallon and his staff had weeks to work on. You’d think they could have done better. Even if those aspects of the show improve, unless Fallon calms down a great deal, it’s hard to see the new version of “Late Night” being part of the pre-bedtime ritual for Conan’s old crowd.
Then again, Conan’s “Late Night” start was notoriously rocky. At least until Fallon improves, we can enjoy the Roots every night.