For a guy months away from taking over one of the biggest franchises in late-night television, Jimmy Fallon sure is keeping a low profile.
True, he's criss-crossing the country doing stand-up gigs, amping up his comedy chops for mid-2009 when he takes over Conan O'Brien's 12:30 p.m. Late Night slot on NBC.
But he's not talking — at least not to nosy newspaper TV critics. Which means we can't ask burning questions like, "What happened to those preview webisodes of your new show you were supposed to unveil this fall?" And, "How does taming a crowd of drunks in Ybor City prepare you to be the next Conan O'Brien?"
Hmm. I think I know why he's not talking.
Still, page through the handful of online reviews and college newspaper stories on his stand-up gigs, and a few truths emerge about this 34-year-old Saturday Night Live veteran-turned-middling movie actor-made budding late-night star.
First, Fallon doesn't have much of a comedy style. If Chris Rock is the hip, in-your-face provocateur and Jerry Seinfeld is the smooth analyst of everyday absurdity, then Fallon is, well, none of those things.
He's cute, occasionally funny and quick with a pop culture reference. Watch him roar through a series of not-quite-impressions in his opening performance hosting the MTV Video Music Awards in 2002 — he played, among other artists, Enrique Iglesias, Nelly and Avril Lavigne — and you see a guy kinda like your dorm buddy with ADD. Funny, but mostly in small doses.
Second, music is a big part of his shtick. Prone to pick up a guitar and reel off parody songs like another SNL alum-turned–superstar (what kind of coin would it take to get Adam Sandler to whip out The Chanukah Song these days?), Fallon's recent stand-up gigs have drawn raves for a bit where he turns pop songs into ecology anthems.
Yes, I Kissed a Girl becomes I Kissed Al Gore, SexyBack becomes I'm Bringing Bottles Back and Sensual Seduction becomes Ethanol Production. I'm assuming you have to be there.
News that he's teamed with hip-hop band The Roots to shoot a video at the funky Philadelphia bar Kung Fu Necktie is a good start; Fallon could do a lot worse than tapping the seriously Afro-ed Roots leader Ahmir Thompson as his new school Paul Shaffer.
Third, his laid back style works when the comedy doesn't. It's something his former SNL co-star Tracy Morgan complained about in an interview with Penthouse: Fallon's penchant for breaking character and laughing during skits. But that offhand manner and aw-shucks style can help keep an audience pulling for him even when the jokes aren't quite there.
I saw it during Fallon's only news conference about getting the late night gig, held at the top of Rockefeller Center in May.
"They're paying me enough to live comfortably … in Dubai," he cracked, looking uncomfortable but sweet in a suit and tie — kinda like your kid brother's best friend right before the bar mitzvah. "I talked to my wife … she left me a note this morning saying 'Nice knowing you.' She knows it's going to be a tough couple of years."
Fallon may have more profile than O'Brien or Kimmel going into his late night gig, but he knows part of building a prime late night property means failing, night after night, for quite a long time, until something clicks.
A cute smile, down-to-earth attitude and experience biting it before comedy club audiences could be just what Fallon needs to survive the TV equivalent of going eight rounds with Muhammad Ali five nights a week.
To see him working the clubs now is like getting a front row seat to the training scene in Rocky. Let the show begin.