Jimmy Fallon’s first time as host of “Tonight,” which took place at midnight Tuesday, marks the start of what will likely be decades of a new face in front of one of latenight’s longest running programs. But his debut won’t answer every question you may have about the new edition of the program or the host at the center of it.
Below, three things that bear watching:
The Sidekick: Steve Higgins has a long tenure in the world of comedy – and in the world of Lorne Michaels, who now oversees “Tonight.” But you may not see any of his expertise if you blink.
Higgins, a veteran producer of ”Saturday Night Live,” has quietly served as the announcer and sounding board for Jimmy Fallon during his time on “Late Night,” and he looks to do so again on “Tonight.”
Whether the audience grasps that remains to be seen.
Where “Late Show with David Letterman” bandleader Paul Shaffer matches his host’s acerbic wit with flamboyance, Higgins uses a very soft shoe when treading near Fallon. Take this exchange from the pair’s first time on “Tonight”:
FALLON: To my right is our announcer and psychic Steve Higgins. He’s from Iowa, and now he lives in New Jersey with a beautiful family and cool kids. Steve, I’ve known you for a while, you’re a producer on “Saturday Night Live,” where I met you for the first time. I couldn’t think of anyone else to do this with. You’re one of my best friends. I love you. This is gonna be fun.
HIGGINS: I just want to say to you, that I couldn’t be prouder—
FALLON: (Interrupts) This is a moment in TV history. Even if I wasn’t involved, I’d be so psyched to watch it…
Will Higgins develop a voice during the show other than the one he uses to introduce the host? Time will tell…
The Guests: Bookers have clearly worked hard on the first two weeks of Fallon’s “Tonight.” After luring Will Smith, Jerry Seinfeld and Justin Timberlake to Week One, staffers have managed to capture Reese Witherspoon, Denzel Washington and Cameron Diaz to Week Two.
What will happen after the hoopla dies down and the show starts to rely less on A-listers and more on folks from the worlds of government, sports, business and – that staple of latenight – animal training?
Fallon has proven adept at happy talk with top guests, eager to turn his enthusiasm for a celebrity’s movies, fashions or other work into enough patter to fill the space between commercials, His flair for enlisting guests to take part in games or even funny sketches that go viral is verging on legendary.
His move to the 11:35 p.m. slot, however, may force him to start boning up on his skills in other types of conversations, like current affairs and politics. He’s been able to avoid that sort of thing in the recent past, getting President Obama to “slow jam the news” or cajoling First Lady Michelle Obama to dance. But audiences may, over time, want to see the host develop a more probing style of conversation, one that gets answers to questions people may have for celebs in the hot seat or politicians in the middle of a campaign.
It’s a forte David Letterman has truly mastered since he addressed the nation’s Sept 11, 2001 tragedy, and one that serves him well as his audience grows older and as his younger competitors rely more heavily on sketches that go viral in social media. As Fallon’s time in the “Tonight” seat lengthens, will he add to the humor and spark already in his quiver?
The Rivals: Just because “Tonight” has a new host doesn’t mean the other shows in the time period are going silent. As Stephen Colbert, who appeared in one of the opening segments of Fallon’s first show, said, “Welcome to 11:30, bitch!”
ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel” may be the one to watch most closely. ABC and NBC will likely vie for the broadest swath of latenight viewers of the future. Tomorrow night, the fight begins in earnest. As Fallon is set to feature Jerry Seinfeld, Kristen Wiig and Lady Gaga, Kimmel will feature a first look at “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a new movie derived from the comics and sure to be of interest to a good chunk of the guys between 18 and 34 the Fallon show would love to have. The movie is backed by Marvel, which just happens to be part of Disney, like ABC.
Both programs will offer a lot to make viewers laugh, but make no mistake about the fight going on behind the scenes.