Jimmy Fallon made a successful debut as host of The Tonight Show Monday night with much the same fanfare surrounding the departure of Jay Leno two weeks ago. With headline guests Will Smith and U2, and a murderer’s row of cameo admirers, Fallon began what he and NBC hope will be the latest in a roster of long-running hosts in the show’s history.
Fallon’s debut began innocently enough, with the customary changes. There was a new stage and a new house band, The Roots; new theme music, and from all indications it seemed primed to follow the tried-and-true late night formula: Monologue, comedy bit at the desk, guest interview, and musical performance. However, for anyone who is familiar with Jimmy Fallon, the only surprise would be no surprise.
Upon his emergence from the opening curtain, Fallon stepped up to his 4-leaf clover mark on the studio floor and launched into a humble and heartfelt “hello” to the audience he said he hoped to be entertaining for a long, long time. His monologue ground rules were simple, he said: To make fun of everybody! His goal, he said, is to make people laugh and put you to bed with a smile on your face. With that, he turned around, went back behind the curtain, and began the show again. On this, his first monologue as host of The Tonight Show, perhaps it was fitting that he mostly made fun of NBC’s premiere event, The Olympics.
Not to be outdone by the cavalcade of stars who paraded the set for Leno’s final show, Jimmy Fallon brought in his own A-list not long after he took a seat at his brand new desk. Remarking that a friend had bet him $100 that he’d never be host of The Tonight Show; he went on to announce to the world that friend owed him $100. The audience went wild as Robert De Niro walked onto the stage from behind the curtain and laid a c-note down in front of the new Tonight Show host. The applause didn’t stop there, as De Niro was followed by a who’s who of New York celebrities, including Tina Fey, Joe Namath, Rudy Giuliani, Joan Rivers and others. All offered handshakes or kisses, and all added to the pile of currency in front of Fallon. The train finally stopped when Stephen Colbert arrived with a bucketful of pennies, took a “selfie” with Fallon, and greeted the newbie with “Welcome to 11:30, bitch!”
The next segments of the show made it clear that Jimmy Fallon would not be following the usual script for his version of The Tonight Show. Immediately after the first break, when the regular late-night viewer would expect the program to shift into automatic pilot with the guest interview, Fallon threw his first curve. The viewers were treated to a pre-recorded dance segment, performed by Fallon and Will Smith entitled “The Evolution of Hip-Hop.” From there, sans commercial break, the scene switched to Fallon on top of the famed Rockefeller Center introducing his musical guest U2, who performed live against the backdrop of a sunset on the New York City skyline.
From there, the show coasted, with Fallon letting his personality soar in his one-on-one with guest Smith. A Jimmy Fallon interview is like listening to an easy conversation, and that is perhaps the highest praise one can give to a host. And high praise came for Jimmy Fallon’s first Tonight Show in the form of the Neilson ratings, which reported 11.3 million viewers nationwide. It was a strong debut for the program’s newest host, but critics are quick to point out that those numbers fell short of Leno’s final show, which drew 14.6 million. The 11.3 million, however, was close to three times the average audience for the show this season. Debut numbers are always inflated, and a drop-off is certain to occur as the novelty wears off and the average viewership settles in. How much the ratings drop in the coming months will determine if Jimmy Fallon is next in line for a 20-year run on The Tonight Show, or we’ll be seeing Jay Leno again sometime soon.
By Chuck Podhaisky