Latenight television hosts are judged based on durability, so Jimmy Fallon’s debut really represents just the first step in what NBC hopes will be a marathon. That’s good, because despite solid tune-in out of curiosity about the new kid, Fallon’s “Late Night” got off to a rocky start, with uninspired writing and taped pieces, an at-times visibly nervous host and a first guest, Robert De Niro, whose taciturn nature made him a poor choice for the assignment — so much so that Fallon’s sweaty forehead brought back memories of Albert Brooks in “Broadcast News.”
From his days at “Saturday Night Live” and a fleeting movie career, Fallon brings name recognition and a boyish charm to the task, but there’s little else that would qualify as a new wrinkle here. Even the host’s opening monologue felt conspicuously like material that could have been written for Jay Leno, such as cracking that President Obama’s next address would be “brought to you by China.”
The taped segment that followed, in what apparently will be a recurring gag paying tribute to that night’s “target demographic” — here, “blonde mothers from Connecticut” — fell equally flat. Nor was there much to get excited about in having audience members lick various products for $10 — a silly bit that would have required objects more of the “Jackass” variety to work.
One might have assumed that the producers would have taken advantage of the build-up to put their best feet forward beyond an intro that amounted to a hand-off from Conan O’Brien, so it was a surprise that this key section delivered so little.
Fallon also struggled at the desk, which is where, ultimately, talkshows have to be made most nights. Although De Niro is a notoriously bad interview, peppering him with questions designed to yield one-word answers only exacerbated the awkwardness. Justin Timberlake helped matters by exhibiting his talents mimicking other popular singers, and Fallon seemed relieved to let someone else carry the load.
Although Fallon will doubtless settle in, it’s pretty clear that “Late Night” is exactly the same format with a new frontman, which means NBC can only hope that its host grows into the gig. For now, though, the support system looks iffy, and the learning curve appears pretty steep.
“Believe it or not, we have another show tomorrow,” Fallon said near the end. We believe it — and better luck next time.