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Jimmy Fallon charms Tampa with humor and energy

TAMPA — After meeting a skunk named Gloria and an echidna named Darwin, Jimmy Fallon grabbed a 20-foot python named Asia and smiled wide for the cameras.

Minutes later, after the cameras stopped rolling, the python's last meal exploded all over the studio floor.

"It smells like an old 40-ounce!" Fallon yelled to the howling audience at WFLA-Ch. 8, where he and an animal handler from Busch Gardens were taping a segment for the station's Daytime program.

Talk about a welcome-to-Florida moment.

But even in his road-weary, sleep-deprived state, even in the face of an incontinent mega-serpent, the future Tonight Show host just couldn't turn off the charm that's made him one of the most popular figures on television.

Everyone wanted a piece of Fallon during Wednesday's brief layover in Tampa, the last stop on a whirlwind tour of NBC affiliates in St. Louis, Nashville and Orlando.

His Clean Cut Comedy Tour was the Tampa Theatre's hottest ticket in two decades, selling out in 40 minutes. On Twitter, restaurants like Datz and the Oxford Exchange begged him to stop by. Fans gifted him with outfits, accessories and CDs for his 12-week-old daughter Winnie.

It seemed like wherever Fallon went, he left a panorama of grinning faces and a chorus of gushing compliments. And at every turn, he tried to reciprocate.

"You feel like James Bond, running to a plane to make it to the next thing, but it's exciting," Fallon said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. "It's all happening kind of quickly, believe it or not. I know the show's not till February, but it's all picking up. I know I'm just trying to keep my head down and work and try to make the best show we can do."

On this tour, Fallon is offering NBC affiliates and fans around the country glimpses of what his Tonight Show will look like. House band the Roots will be back, as will announcer Steve Higgins. And so, he promised, will the inspired, energetic silliness that's made Late Night with Jimmy Fallon the viral juggernaut that it is. "It'll be exactly the same, I feel like, only an hour earlier," he said.

"I wish Steve Allen were still alive today so he could see what I'm doing," he continued, referring to the Tonight Show's original host from the '50s. "Steve Allen used to get into a giant bowl and make a banana split. He'd be the banana, and they'd put whipped cream on him. … 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!' "

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Fallon estimates he'll visit at least 25 cities before his Tonight Show debuts in February, and each tour stop is planned down to the minute.

After visiting an NBC affiliate in Orlando on Wednesday, he grabbed lunch at the city's landmark Beefy King and raced to Tampa's WFLA to film Tonight Show promos, sit in on a live 4 p.m. broadcast, sample a Columbia Restaurant Cuban and tape an episode of Daytime, which will air Monday.

Most of Fallon's Tampa fans didn't get to see Fallon in the flesh until Wednesday night, when he and comics Nick Thune, Nate Bargatze, Julian McCullough and Seth Herzog took the stage at the 87-year-old Tampa Theatre.

Fallon, fittingly, served as the emcee, enthusiastically introducing his fellow comics with a little standup or a bit from his show, such as his impressions of celebrities singing TV theme songs: Neil Young on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the Doors on Reading Rainbow, Bob Dylan on Charles in Charge. Near the end, he blitzed the crowd with rapid-fire impressions of a host of A-list comedians, including Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams, Adam Sandler and Chris Rock.

Not on the list: Steve Allen. But Fallon still has a few months to get that one just right.