Sizing up Jimmy Fallon, Conan's heir apparent

Kevin Pang
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Watching Jimmy Fallon strut his stuff onstage is two cans of Red Bull and a caffeine pill chaser for the psyche. He is a blur of boundless energy, elastic voiced, a troubadour satirist with a guitar.

Exhibit A: During one bit Saturday night at The Improv in Schaumburg, he did 16 spot-on celebrity impressions in 160 seconds.

Fallon, he of charming boyish aloofness, of meticulously kempt/unkempt hair, is a prince in waiting.

In March, the "Saturday Night Live" alumnus inherits NBC's vice presidency of late-night television. As "The Tonight Show" swears in President Conan O'Brien, Fallon will take over "Late Night's" 12:35 a.m. EST slot.

Let's not play down the moment: Since 1982, only two men - O'Brien and David Letterman - have taken the helm of NBC's late-night talk fest. It's a once-in-a-generation seismic reshuffling of the late-night landscape, known for its long stretches of dormancy. And it could trigger aftershocks.

For one, Jay Leno (who some would note is being evicted for O'Brien) is expected to land at another network, possibly ABC. This could mean the man presently there, Jimmy Kimmel, would jump ship (to Fox, one persistent rumor has it).

The one sure thing is that Fallon is a ball of nervous excitement who just wants to get that first show - on March 2 - over with.

"Definitely there's a pressure about it," Fallon said between sets Saturday. "You don't want to let anybody down."

Much of the show's detail remains under wraps, but Fallon revealed this much:

  • It will follow the standard talk-show format: monologue, desk comedy bit, two guests and a band.

  • "It's 80 percent there," Fallon said of the show's development process.

  • There will be no sidekick.

A bandleader has been chosen, but Fallon won't say who, other than that "it's amazing."

On Dec. 8, the show will launch a behind-the-scenes video blog on

The show will tape at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, though not in its famed studio 6A, where O'Brien, Letterman, Johnny Carson and Jack Paar hosted their shows. (O'Brien will be moving to Los Angeles to assume "The Tonight Show" duties, but not soon enough for crews to redo the space for Fallon.)

Since the announcement of Fallon's takeover was made in May, the 34-year-old has spent much of his time touring at comedy clubs, he said, aiming to "not get rusty." He has watched DVDs of old Johnny Carson shows on a loop, and studied the likes of Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas, Steve Allen, Jack Paar and even Garry Shandling's fictitious Larry Sanders for talk-show nuance. He has picked Leno's brain, plans to dine with O'Brien this week and hopes to chat with Letterman soon.

And what has he learned?

"Ellen (DeGeneres) gave me some good advice," Fallon said. "Don't concentrate on one nuance of a joke. Don't overthink it. Just go have fun."

If his four-night stand in Schaumburg is an indication of how Fallon's "Late Night" might operate, then there is promise.

For one, Fallon comes from the improvisation camp of comics, unlike most late-night hosts who arrive via the stand-up circuit.

To that end, Fallon is quick-witted and quick-footed, having studied with L.A.'s famed troupe The Groundlings, not to mention his six years at "SNL."

And since his days on "SNL" (he joined the cast in his mid-20s), he has toned down the aw-shucks, endearingly shy Adam Sandleresque facade, replaced by a self-assured confidence in his comedy.

His jokes are observational, his references pop cultural. A spoof on popsinger-du-jour Katy Perry and her hit song "I Kissed a Girl" was funny enough, but was most relatable to the cadre of Facebook-generation twentysomethings sitting in the back of the room.

This is the very age group Fallon - and his advertisers - must keep tuned in after O'Brien departs.

Then there is the Lorne Factor. Show producer Lorne Michaels was viciously panned for plucking O'Brien from obscurity 15 years ago. (At the time, O'Brien was a writer for "The Simpsons" and "SNL.") The show's success since has vindicated Michaels. And let's not forget Michaels' all-time high stock after "SNL's" recent success in the political season. Perhaps Lorne is onto something.

"'Late Night' is now going to be unofficially and indelibly associated Lorne Zone," said Bill Zehme, author of the forthcoming Johnny Carson biography and America's unofficial late-night TV historian. "And with that we will be inclined to give Fallon a wider berth than any of us gave Conan - never mind that Lorne's hand ordained him from the start as well."

Zehme warns that Fallon's sugar-buzzed persona, however, could turn viewers off if left untamed.

"As amped and uncomfortable Conan looked at the get-go - when he was completely unknown - Fallon seems 10 times that jumpy and haphazard, and we've known him for years already," Zehme said.

But as Fallon points out: "I'm not thinking about Craig Ferguson, I'm not thinking about Jimmy Kimmel. My biggest competition is sleep."

As in keeping people awake past midnight.

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