As NBC confirms Jimmy Fallon will replace Tonight Show host Jay Leno in Spring 2014, here's a few unanswered questions
At least, NBC learned a few lessons from its last, disastrous Tonight Show transition.
Just as the media hordes began a drip-drip procession of news stories on the network’s plan to replace host Jay Leno – again – NBC revealed today that 12:30 p.m. host Jimmy Fallon will take over the Tonight Show in spring 2014.
As part of that change, the Tonight Show will return to New York City where Fallon’s Late Night show has always been based, bringing the program back to Gotham for the first time since Johnny Carson took it to California in 1972.
Much as this signals the ascension of Fallon, who has progressed from uncertain host to a confident late night voice for the Millennial generation, this transition marks another coup for Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels. Michaels, a longtime backer of Fallon and executive producer of his Late Night show will now executive produce the Tonight Show as well, giving him control of all NBC’s most important late night programs.
The change comes so that Fallon can be announced as Tonight Show host at the end of NBC's Winter Olympics coverage next year, providing a high-profile showcase.
As details began to leak in the press about NBC’s plans to elevate Fallon and move the show east, the two late night hosts released a jokey video poking fun at the speculation to ease any suggestion of animosity between the two camps.
NBC’s press release also featured complimentary quotes from both men, with Leno’s quote saying: “Congratulations Jimmy. I hope you're as lucky as me and hold on to the job until you're the old guy. If you need me, I'll be at the garage.”
Fallon’s note: “I’m really excited to host a show that starts today instead of tomorrow.”
Cynics will note this tone of congeniality is similar to the way Leno and Conan O’Brien talked about each other back in 2004 when NBC announced that O’Brien would be taking over for Leno in five years.
The logic then was that giving O’Brien the Tonight Show was necessary to keep him at NBC. But when the time came to make the change in 2009, Leno was still doing well in the ratings, O’Brien wasn’t doing as well and the network was left scurrying to keep Leno from leaving for a rival network.
By the time the dust cleared, Leno had insisted on unveiling a 10 p.m. weekday show that looked an awful lot like his old Tonight Show. When ratings tanked, he cut a deal to get back the Tonight Show, leaving O’Brien as damaged goods to land at cable channel TBS. (some journalists and fans of O'Brien groused online that the carrot-topped comic wasn't even mentioned in NBC's release on the transition, which simply noted Leno has hosted the Tonight Show for 22 years.)
But Leno told the New York Times that this transition is different because he was involved with planning it. "The last time the decision was made without me. I came into work one day and — you’re out,” Leno told the newspaper. This time “there really aren’t any complications like there were the last time...This time it feels right.”
The relatively quick turnaround on this announcement suggests NBC has leaned its lesson. But has it really? Here’s a few things we still don’t know:
What will Leno do? The announcement doesn’t say what Leno will do after the switch is made. Previous reports have said his contact ends in fall 2014, so NBC could keep him off a rival channel at least until then. Leno told the New York Times he expects to return to standup comedy. But he's a notorious workaholic; don’t expect him to fold up his desk just because he’s not at the Tonight Show anymore.
Who gets the Late Night show? Several stories have suggested Seth Meyers, who is SNL’s head writer, Weekend Update host and a Michaels protégé, as a shoo in. But there are other names – say, Community star Joel McHale, comic Chris Rock if he’s interested – who might also do well. NBC and Michaels spent a lot of time developing Fallon for his current gig; will they have similar time, especially now they they must also revamp a Fallon-led Tonight Show?
Will this help rival David Letterman? Once the 38-year-old Fallon takes over the Tonight Show, he and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel (age 45) will present a relatively youthful face for two of the three late night network talk shows. Older fans of the 62-year-old Leno – meaning age 50 and up – might head for the guy with the most seniority (Letterman turns 66 next week), especially when Fallon starts uncorking gags based on Twitter hashtags and rap songs.
Will this help rival Jimmy Kimmel? Once the change is made, two of the three big late night network talk shows will be based in New York City. That could help the Hollywood-based Kimmel, who will have closer access to the showbiz universe’s official capital.
Whatever happens, the world of late night television just got a whole lot more interesting.