It's Super Bowl Sunday, and I'm racing around Raymond James Stadium trying to snag a few minutes with some of the stars who have dropped into Tampa to promote their latest project. Over here is Kris Jenner, over there is the Rock, back that way is Chuck, from TV's Chuck. • And then I see Jimmy Fallon, the former Saturday Night Live star who's a month from debuting as the host of NBC's Late Night. • Fallon is on his way to grab a beer, pausing every few steps to slap hands and snap photos with fans, but he happily stops to talk about the game, and especially halftime headliner Bruce Springsteen. • "It's going to be the longest halftime show in history," he says. "It's going to be longer than the football game." • "Yeah," I say. "He could just play Rosalita, and that'd be the whole thing." • A lame crack about a long song, I know. But, God bless him, that's when Jimmy Fallon does that Jimmy Fallon thing: He cocks back in laughter, grinning broadly and clapping like the good talk-show host he was about to become. He doesn't have to — I'm not Lorne Michaels or Tina Fey or Justin Timberlake; just some local hack with a passable knowledge of the Boss' early work. • Yet Jimmy Fallon laughs. Hard. • Because that's what Jimmy Fallon does. He laughs. Hard. • Afterward, Fallon went on to become the new crown prince of late-night television. And I went off to stalk my next celebrity, thinking: Boy, that Jimmy Fallon seems like a really nice guy.
'LEAST TORTURED COMEDIAN'
Jimmy Fallon is a really nice guy. I base this not on one three-minute encounter in 2009, but on 15 years of watching the guy act, sing, dance and dissolve into giggle fits live on network television. He's our culture's pre-eminent fanboy of fun, a guy who loves everyone, who thinks everything is awesome, who is so thrilled to watch you do that thing you do that he can't help but join in.
"Joyful, easy, breezy," GQ called him. "The least tortured comedian imaginable," said Rolling Stone. His show is "a goofy, raucous, playful, innovative hour of shameless shenanigans," said New York magazine.
"I always tell people, he's as nice as you think he is," said comic Nate Bargatze, part of Fallon's "Clean Cut Comedy Tour," which hits the Tampa Theatre Oct. 16 for a sold-out show. "He's a guy that you feel is really enjoying his life and career, and I think that helps, and that's the reason people tend to like him so much, and like the show. He's truly enjoying it, and is just genuinely happy that he's made it as far as he's made it. And he's trying to have the most fun possible."
Barely a week passes without one of Fallon's gleeful Late Night bits going viral, whether it's a boogie through the history of hip-hop with Justin Timberlake or a toy-instrument rendition of Call Me Maybe performed with Carly Rae Jepsen and the Roots. It's why Fallon can convince Springsteen to sing Whip My Hair, Serena Williams to play beer pong and President Barack Obama to slow-jam the news.
Fallon's irrepressible positivity is a rarity on the late-night landscape. David Letterman is the king of ironic detachment, Jimmy Kimmel a clubby prankster, Conan O'Brien a meta-minded intellectual, Craig Ferguson a roguish charmer, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert masters of satire. Even the affable Jay Leno, the man Fallon will soon replace as host of the Tonight Show, has a much-publicized competitive streak.
But Fallon? Not only does Fallon never go dark, he barely goes dim. Late Night has a weekly segment called "Thank You Notes," in which Fallon delivers silly, observational one-liners phrased as notes of gratitude (i.e., "Thank you, rowboat, for having a name that tells me how to use you"). The segment was so popular it spawned a pair of books.
Think about that for a second. Who else but Jimmy Fallon could make saying "thank you" so funny?
THE POPULIST APPROACH
People forget: This was never supposed to work out.
Before Late Night, Fallon had never hosted a talk show. He consistently broke character on SNL, laughing through some of the show's most famous sketches (more cowbell, anyone?). And he was following in the footsteps of O'Brien and Letterman, two icons of intelligent, subversive comedy.
But Fallon and producer Lorne Michaels made the cunning promise that Late Night would integrate social media like no show before it. Not only did that mean embracing Twitter and launching a backstage blog (one that would win an Emmy for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media), it meant crafting comedy bits that could easily go viral.
And what sort of videos tend to go viral? Precocious children. Sneezing pandas. A man in an Orange Crush T-shirt acting out five decades of dance moves. Clips that are both safe for work (all the better for sharing) and relatively timeless (all the better for watching over and over again).
"It's a little more populist than other late-night shows have been, but I think they've also managed to maintain the quality, and people really respect that," said Elise Czajkowski, associate editor with the comedy news site Splitsider.com.
Czajkowski points to a viral Late Night bit about Susan Boyle, the middle-aged singer who shot to fame on Britain's Got Talent. Instead of focusing on her appearance, the joke revolved around her powerful voice casting a wave of calm over every person in the office.
"It was a nicer, less traditional late-night thing, which is just, 'Oh, she's not very attractive, let's just make fun of that,' " Czajkowski said. "Fallon wanted to come at it from a different angle. That sort of less-mean approach has really resonated with people. That gets shared more."
It's also comedy that speaks to the Millennial ideal of optimism over cynicism. At 39, Fallon is more than a decade younger than O'Brien and Stewart, two Gen-X figures who rose to fame in the early '90s, and whose senses of humor can be divisive. Fallon's desire to bring everyone in on a joke tends to be more palatable to viewers of all demographics — something you didn't necessarily see in 2010, when O'Brien moved from Late Night to the Tonight Show.
"Conan appealed to a younger audience, but he didn't really appeal to an older audience," said Tom Hebel, director of marketing for WFLA-Ch. 8. "I think they lost a lot of the older audience to Letterman at that point. So the ratings conversely went down. If you look at Jimmy's ratings, at least in the Tampa area, for as long as I've been here, he does well with the younger viewers, but he also does well with the older viewers, and has pretty much been No. 1." Fallon's Tonight Show takeover, Habel said, will be "a much smoother transition."
Czajkowski puts it more succinctly: "Who doesn't like Jimmy Fallon? He's so likeable. And I think that'll win over a lot of people."
A bigger nice-guy club
It's anyone's guess how long the nice guy can keep winning. But we do know this: By the time his Tonight Show debuts on Feb. 24, Fallon won't be the only nice guy on TV.
September marked the TV return of Arsenio Hall, whose electric early '90s gabfest may be the closest forebear of Fallon's Late Night party. This month, TBS will debut a midnight show with excitable comic Pete Holmes, whom the A.V. Club once likened to a "big, bouncing puppy dog," and Comedy Central will launch @Midnight with nerd king Chris Hardwick, the everything-is-amazeballs host of AMC's Talking Dead and Talking Bad.
But if Fallon is in danger of losing the title of Nicest Guy in Late Night, he isn't giving it up without a fight.
You might be wondering why Fallon is coming to the Tampa Theatre next week — why, given his popularity, he feels the need to tour the country with a handful of standup comics who are largely unknown outside the comedy nerdosphere.
Turns out his Clean Cut Comedy Tour coincides with a pre-Tonight Show tour of large NBC affiliates, including WFLA-Ch. 8. Before the show, he'll spend three hours glad-handing the WFLA staff, filming promo spots and segments, sitting in on a live 4 p.m. broadcast and generally trying to convince station executives that his Tonight Show will be every bit as likeable and watchable as his Late Night.
In other words, Jimmy Fallon will do what Jimmy Fallon does best: