When Jimmy Fallon replaces Jay Leno as host of the Tonight Show, he wants no part of the drama that engulfed Conan O'Brien in 2009.
"I was like, 'When you're ready to step down, let me know, and we'll do it the right way,' " Fallon recalled telling Leno. "And when he was ready, he gave me a call and said, 'Yeah, it's about the right time. Go for it.' So I had his blessing, and he's been nothing but great to me."
You'd expect nothing less from Fallon, one of the most positive, least feather-ruffling personalities on television. Under his watch, NBC's Late Night not only kept the cutting-edge humor that became its hallmark under David Letterman and Conan O'Brien, it showed America that comedy doesn't have to be mean to be funny. In fact, the sillier and more energetic Fallon's Late Night got, the more people seemed to love it, with segment after segment after segment going viral.
Presumably, NBC realized that the likeable Fallon had a more bankable future than O'Brien, so their nudge of Jay Leno out the door feels a bit more final this time around than it did in 2009. Both parties seem happy with how the transition has gone so far — but no one will know for sure until the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon debuts from New York on Feb. 17.
"I never dreamed I would be doing this," Fallon said. "It's not a job that you dream about, because as a kid, you used to watch Johnny Carson, and I never thought, 'Oh, he'll retire one day.' I don't know what retirement is as a kid. I'm like, he's Johnny Carson. He'll live forever. I never thought I could do it. It's happening, and it's just, 'All right, let's go. I'm ready to go.' "
Last fall, Fallon came to Tampa on a tour of NBC affiliates. Before a performance that night at the Tampa Theatre, he discussed his thoughts on viral videos, moving to 11:35 p.m. and his goals for the Tonight Show. Here are excerpts.
Is there a difference, in your mind, between 12:35 and 11:35?
You can do probably weirder stuff. There's less people watching, so you can probably get away with more stuff. 11:30 is an hour earlier, so hopefully my parents will watch now. We're going to do the same show we have been doing. I figure in my head we're kind of doing the Tonight Show now, it's just no one knows it.
So much of your audience has discovered your stuff online. Will that be the case once you move earlier?
It'll be exactly the same, I feel like. An hour earlier, it's great to watch on TV, but it's always good to come in the next day and show what you just saw the night before and send it around to people. I think it's fun to live in that world now, where it's just the norm.
You wanted Late Night to be a very social-media-intense show when you started. But how aware were you of the power that the stuff you do at 12:35 would have the following day? When did you become aware of the time-shifted viewing that has occurred with your show?
I'll tell you exactly when. We did a test show, and we had Jack McBrayer, who looked like Gov. Bobby Jindal a little bit, and we did a sketch where he did an impression of him. This was just a test show; it didn't air on television. Conan was still on Late Night, Jay was doing the Tonight Show. And we put that clip online, and it went viral. We didn't even have a show. No one even knew what the set would look like. It was kind of crazy.
And then one of the first big things that we did was, I did an impression of Neil Young, and people thought it was Neil Young. I was singing Pants on the Ground or Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or one of those songs that Neil Young would never sing in real life, and The Hollywood Reporter was like, "I don't know how Fallon got Neil Young to do this, singing the theme from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air …" We have screengrabs of all these places that we faked out. This was all during the whole Conan-Jay debacle, and we just stayed out of it, trying to think of funny ideas, and that was one of the ideas that took off. We were like, 'Yeah, this is great.' "
You strike me as a guy who maybe taped SNL growing up, or Letterman, or any of the late-night shows, and watched them the next day. Did you — or Lorne Michaels, for that matter — have a sense of the everlasting power of a good comedy bit?
I did as a fan of Saturday Night Live. Lorne doesn't watch sketches after they air live. I do, though. I'm a fan of the show, a diehard fan. I geek out more than Lorne does, because he's done it for 39 years. So I always would travel to parties with a video cassette tape of Saturday Night Live and be like, "You wanna see the best sketches?" I would go over to the VCR and show them Chris Farley or whatever.
With the Internet and YouTube, it's great; I don't have to bring a videotape around anymore. But if you go to parties and say, "Have you seen the clip of the kid coming back from the dentist?" then you have to sit around and watch clips. Hopefully that goes away, because I think it ruins parties. But it's at least good viewing.
Did you watch much of Letterman and Conan when they moved from 12:35 to 11:35? Did you get a sense of how their show changed, or their personality changed?
Letterman didn't change that much. Conan changed the most drastically, I think, out of anyone. Letterman went over to CBS, so the whole thing looked new. You didn't know what was going on. But if you watch it now, he has weird stuff on there, weird jokes, exactly what you have to have.
I wish Steve Allen were still alive today, so that he could see what I'm doing. I think he'd be like, "He's doing what I did!" Steve Allen used to get into a giant bowl and make a banana split, and he'd be the banana, and they'd put a little whipped cream on him. … We're not reinventing the wheel. It's been done. Letterman wasn't doing anything that groundbreaking; Steve Allen has done this. You can watch it. Go to the Museum of Television and Radio and check out these tapes. Probably now, it's on YouTube. You can look at old Steve Allen. He's making crank calls, it's hilarious. And so I think he'd be psyched. He'd be like, "Yes! Let's keep it silly, keep it goofy, keep it fun! That's what it's all about!"