When Conan O’Brien ended his run on “Late Night” a couple weeks back, the retrospective appreciation for the new “Tonight Show” host usually revolved around a common theme: When Conan started, everybody thought he stunk. So every critic seemed to want to run a blurb or two from their original reviews where they talked about how awkward and painfully unfunny O’Brien seemed at the time.
I don’t think I saw a single blurbed review from a critic who immediately got it right, so the competition was to see which first reaction was the most extreme, the most out-of-touch, the most ridiculously square.
With that in mind, new “Late Night” host Jimmy Fallon probably doesn’t want to see a single positive review for his Tuesday (March 3) morning debut. There’s no “Toldja!” that can be thrown back in the face of a critic with the nerve to praise the “Saturday Night Live” veteran if Fallon ultimately succeeds wildly.
On the basis of one episode, it wouldn’t even be really fair to call something like this a review.
But how did Jimmy Fallon’s first night go?
More after the break…
The obvious first impression is that Fallon is not a natural. Conan wasn’t a natural and I’m not sure if you’d think that Letterman or Leno were naturals if you went back and watched their first episodes. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were both dreadful interviewers when their Comedy Central shows began. This isn’t something that happens overnight, so I don’t see much purpose in making grand statements about Fallon’s abilities based on one hour.
That hour wasn’t fantastic, but it wasn’t the train wreck that I remember Conan’s first show being.
The most immediate problem I had was that in pre-premiere media appearance, Fallon made such a big point of being the first late night host to really be of-and-for the Facebook/Twitter/Internet generation. If I were to make a claim like that, I’d really want my first show to throw down the gauntlet in some way and make it clear from the first second that this isn’t just business as usual.
Fallon’s first show didn’t do that. He went with a first impression that was totally conventional and boundary-respecting.
There was a monologue that had a couple decent moments (“Just before I went on, Rush Limbaugh called up and says he wants me to fail.”). There were utterly familiar taped bits that had the advantage of not being long and I’d watch another couple “Target Demographic” features, I think. There was a Stupid Human Tricks-style game where three contestants came down and licked a lawnmower and a copier in exchange for 10 bucks. Even with a hyped-up first-night audience, none of the “bits” generated excessive audience excitement, probably because everything was so familiar. That being said, it wasn’t like he was bombing. He just wasn’t generating energy.
Somebody had to know better than to bring in Robert DeNiro as Fallon’s first guest. Again, the producers’ priority was going with the big name, rather than finding a way to instantly brand the show. DeNiro isn’t a good talk show guest under the best of circumstances and Fallon made a joke out of his refusal or disinterest in making DeNiro seem any less awkward. I get that it was a gag, at least to some degree, but it wasn’t the sort of gag you want to do with your first interview as America is watching and wondering if you’re capable of instigating an entertaining conversation. As bad as the DeNiro interview was, the filmed “Space Train” bit was even worse, though it offered Fallon’s first time accidentally cracking himself up, which was something of a trademark in his “SNL” days.
The DeNiro interview set the wrong tone and even Justin Timberlake, as good a talk show guest as there is, wasn’t any better. The two spent most of their conversation remembering their “Saturday Night Live” skits and by the time Timberlake introduced the clip from his MTV series “The Phone,” most people probably thought it was a joke. It wasn’t and this wasn’t very good promotion.
Fallon’s difference-maker is and will continue to be The Roots, his house band. If Fallon and his team are smart, they’ll expand the house band’s role as much as possible, make them equal partners. Just about every memorable moment in the premiere, from Slow Jamming the News to the Bee-Gees intro for Timberlake, came courtesy of ?uestlove and Tariq (“Black Thought,” if you prefer).
I’ll certainly give Fallon and The Roots a couple more episodes. Maybe a reunion with Tina Fey will loosen up his interview style? Maybe ?uestlove will play a bigger role? Maybe Jimmy will new and exciting things for contestants to lick?
What’d you think of Jimmy Fallon’s first night?
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