1. Life & Culture

Review: 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon' off to a familiar start

First Lady Michelle Obama let loose on Fallon’s show Thursday.
First Lady Michelle Obama let loose on Fallon’s show Thursday.
Published Feb. 22, 2014

The worst thing you could say about new Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon is that he's overly excited to be doing what he does. He's so nice, so giddy to just be there, so thoroughly un-tortured in the way most comedians (and late-night hosts) are.

Of course, that's also the best thing you could say about Fallon, and the success of his new gig will depend on how he uses that energy to seduce a much broader audience, people who wouldn't know Pros and Cons from Freestylin' with the Roots.

Fallon shouldn't have any problem holding onto fans who have stuck with him during the past five years toiling at 12:35 a.m. It's those folks who have never watched him break it down with Justin Timberlake or write Thank You notes that he's going to have to win over.

And if this first week of shows is any indication, that's the audience he's playing to. Almost everything that popped up on the Tonight Show this week has been done before on Late Night: Tonight Show Superlatives; Roots members reenacting lines from The Bachelor; hashtag games.

For Fallon fans who've seen the barbershop quartet rendition of Sexy Back (featuring Justin Timberlake himself), watching the quartet put their spin on R. Kelly's Ignition on Tuesday night's show just didn't feel as exciting.

But there are people who've never seen this stuff before, and this parade of Fallon's greatest hits is for them.

So far, Fallon and Co. have chosen wisely with which popular Late Night segments to carry over to this new show; things like Pros and Cons that will appeal to new, likely older viewers who didn't watch his show or the viral segments they produced online.

(On Wednesday, Fallon did debut a new segment called Fallonventionism, in which kids come on to demonstrate their clever inventions, including a young girl from Clearwater. It's a nice, funny segment, and the first thing he's done that doesn't feel like it'd be at home on Late Night.)

As this week went on, Fallon relaxed into his new role. On Tuesday, Jerry Seinfeld became the first standup comedian to perform on the show, then stuck around to chat with Fallon about the host's impression of him, which he gets a real kick out of ("I don't think I go up that high. You're doing me from the '80s!"). Bradley Cooper showed up Wednesday and played charades with the supremely entertaining Emma Thompson. By the time First Lady Michelle Obama appeared on the show Thursday, to do the fake Teen Nick show Ew! with Fallon and Will Ferrell, the show achieved the loose, anything-goes vibe Late Night maintained so well.

Combine that with the fact that Fallon's show often seems designed to spawn viral videos, and that's where Fallon can carve for himself a unique purpose in late night. When was the last time you watched something Jay Leno did the next day on the Internet? It's a model that made Fallon's Late Night one of the most web-savvy shows out there, and it's already making the Tonight Show more relevant in that realm than it ever was.

It'll take a while, months at least, to really know whether Fallon has succeeded in retaining Leno's audience, while also bringing his Late Night-era Fal Pals along for the ride.

That said, it's worth noting that Fallon had good ratings his first week out the gate (which was expected, given his Winter Olympics lead-in): The first show on Monday was watched by more than 11 million people; Wednesday's episode drew 7.3 million viewers, making it the highest-rated Wednesday for the Tonight Show in more than 10 years. The real indicator will be, two or three months from now, whether more people consistently choose to watch Fallon over David Letterman or, more likely, Jimmy Kimmel.

There was some grousing on the Internet this week about Jimmy's "aw shucks, who me?" persona; that maybe it's time he got over the fact that he's been so successful. Here's the thing, though: I don't think it's really an act. When he tears up thinking that someone will look up to him one day like he looked up to Johnny Carson, it feels genuine. It is a big deal that Jimmy got this gig. He knows that.

So relax, Jimmy. You're so winning, and you've surrounded yourself with such great talent, that you could do a Late Night retread in your sleep and it'd be entertaining. But it's time for you to up the stakes.

Michelle Stark can be reached at