Life after Leno
Jimmy Fallon visits Pasadena to talk about his ascendancy to ‘The Tonight Show’
By Carl Kozlowski 01/23/2014
Growing up in the town of Saugerties, NY, Jimmy Fallon never dreamed of being a TV talk show host. Instead, he focused with laser-like precision on breaking into the cast of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” by locking himself in his room during each new episode. He would also tape those shows for later additional viewings, where he would study the comedic angles, memorize lines and practice impressions of both the show’s fictional characters and real-world celebrities.
That effort would pay off at age 24, when he was signed by the show’s legendary producer, Lorne Michaels, to be a cast member. It’s been a rocket ride ever since, with Fallon gaining stardom during his six years on “SNL” before taking the reins of NBC’s “Late Night” franchise from Conan O’Brien for five successful seasons in which he revitalized the tired talk-show format with viral videos and the most innovative house band in television, The Roots.
On Feb. 17, Fallon, now 39, will take over the throne from Jay Leno and become just the sixth host — after Steve Allen, Jack Paar, the immortal Johnny Carson, Leno and O’Brien — in the 60-year-run of the hallowed show that invented late-night talk. Caught in the middle of his frantic transition period, in which he is still hosting “Late Night” while overseeing every aspect of his new show, Fallon came to Pasadena’s Langham Huntington Pasadena hotel Sunday along with his “Late Night” replacement Seth Meyers to discuss the seismic shift his life is experiencing with the Television Critics Association.
“As early as I can remember I was watching Carson, so there was familiarity with him through my parents having him on,” recalls Fallon, whose first “Tonight” guests will be Will Smith and U2. “I thought he came with the TV, and you’d turn him on at night time. I’d beg my parents to let me watch that, because I knew I was getting away with something.
“But it wasn’t at all my dream job, because I didn’t even know it was a job,” Fallon continues. “I thought if I worked at IBM like my dad and had a house and family like him that was a dream. So if kids today ask to stay up and watch my show, I’m proud of that and hope to deliver.”
Despite his relative youth, Fallon has a deep sense of history about “Tonight” and has taken some bold steps to not only bring innovation to the institution, but also maintain a strong sense of its history. Most notably, he insisted on bringing the show back to New York City from Burbank, where Carson moved the show in 1972.
Fallon’s version of “Tonight” will be set in the show’s original home, Studio 6B at Rockefeller Center, albeit with a state-of-the-art overhaul that expanded the number of audience seats and made its acoustics the best in the business. Fallon also made the show’s official logo a full moon with the show’s title superimposed on it, and also made the program’s full title “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
“Not since ‘The Honeymooners’ in the ’50s has anyone been using a full moon in their show’s art, but always crescents, even though the full moon is the jam,” explains Fallon. “Also, it was always ‘The Tonight Show Starring’ all the way through Johnny Carson, and then Leno changed it to say ‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.’ But this is show business, and it’s glamorous, Hollywood, fun, so saying ‘Starring’ is an homage, a little tip of the cap to the origins of the show and I thought it’d be perfect.”
The transition from Leno to Fallon appears to be going more smoothly than the last time Leno was scheduled to leave his esteemed perch, back in 2009. After announcing in 2004 that he would give the show to then-“Late Night” host Conan O’Brien in 2009, Leno and NBC very publicly stabbed O’Brien in the back by giving Leno a prime time talk show nightly that destroyed the network’s ratings and sent the “Tonight” ratings into a tailspin that was beyond O’Brien’s control.
After just seven months, O’Brien was sent packing and Leno was back in charge, where he is still the top late-night show host despite the fact his ratings never returned to their former levels. Fallon stayed quiet and neutral during the entire dustup, and says that Leno has been nothing but helpful in his own preparations for the job.
“Jay has spoken to me weekly ever since I was named the new host last April, and he advised me to work on my monologue,” says Fallon. “I used to do just three or four minutes of monologue jokes each night, and he told me I’d need 10 minutes on ‘Tonight’ because a lot of people these days get their world news from watching late-night jokes, so I’ve been amping up to 10 minutes a night to be ready.”
Considering the fact that both Carson and Leno retired in their 60s, with Carson leaving after 30 years and Leno after 22, this could be the job that takes Fallon all the way to his golden years. That could be daunting for some, but given the fact that he already took his “Late Night” show to far greater creative and ratings success than anyone including himself ever imagined, it is an opportunity and a challenge that he is eager to face.
“I was born and raised in New York and I live there with my wife, and we have a 6-month-old baby now, so aside from the historical aspect I had to have the show there,” says Fallon, who nonetheless promised to bring “Tonight” tapings to Los Angeles at least one or two weeks each year.
“It’s a beautiful city, especially at night with the lights of Times Square, and everything there has a sense of glamour. And ‘The Tonight Show’ should always have glamour. If it lasts five years or 25 for me, I just want to bear down and do the best job I can.”
“The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” debuts at 11:35 p.m. Monday, Feb. 17 on NBC.