Jimmy Fallon has clearly come a long way since his bathed-in-sweat premiere hosting “Late Night,” which bore a minor resemblance to Albert Brooks in “Broadcast News.” Yet watching the boyish-looking comic make his debut on “The Tonight Show” Monday, the prevailing sense is NBC’s eagerness to promote him – and elbow Jay Leno toward the exit sign – exhibits a marginal grasp of TV history. Like Conan O’Brien, a more interesting if less accessible talent, Fallon is sure to start well. But one suspects part of Leno’s older audience will drift away, leaving behind some familiar questions about sacrificing reach in the name of younger demos.
O’Brien actually put in 17 years of apprenticeship before he officially got his shot at the 11:35 p.m. slot, only to get a classic lesson in being careful what you wish for. Fallon might be the beneficiary initially in having spent less time as Leno’s lead-out, offering more people an opportunity to discover him, as it were, in this new setting.
Indeed, Fallon comes across as eager to please almost to a fault, and he treated his “Tonight Show” launch very much like a guy auditioning to be accepted into homes. He even went through a very basic introduction (he’s 39; married with a young kid; his parents were in the audience) that didn’t feel so much like latenight satire as Katie Couric’s first episode of her syndicated daytime show.
Still, the front-loaded premiere (really part of a heavily accessorized week, using the Olympics and big-name guests as a springboard) demonstrated both some of Fallon’s strengths as well as his weaknesses.
After the obligatory monologue, the host segued into a couple of bits with serious second-day-viewing potential, including an extended walk-in by more than a dozen luminaries (former “Tonight Show” guest host Joan Rivers among them), and a hip-hop dance routine with Will Smith. That gave way to the night’s one real visual flourish – a rooftop performance by U2 that opened up the show in an interesting way while taking advantage of the Manhattan skyline.
For all his skills as a performer, though, Fallon is still a question mark in terms of his ability to make magic out of nothing at the desk, the place where Johnny Carson and David Letterman thrived – and endured. And frankly, his “Aw shucks, I’m just so happy to be here” posture in Monday’s maiden interviews with Smith and U2 got a little tedious even before the night was over.
A subtle clue to the challenges Fallon potentially faces could be found in his opening gag, when Stephen Colbert capped off the parade of stars by saying, “Welcome to 11:30, bitch!”
“The Tonight Show” has a long and storied history, and Fallon might very well be suited to guide it into the digital age, with all the ancillary requirements and possibilities that entails. At the same time, it’s pretty clear he has no intention of reinventing the wheel; even the set felt like it could just as easily have been Johnny or Jay behind the desk.
The bottom line is “The Tonight Show’s” new steward is seeking to carve out his place in a very crowded field. And as Conan discovered, the marathon doesn’t really begin until after the glow from the Olympics has faded.
NBC was going to have to face that baton pass eventually. But given the vagaries of latenight succession — and Leno’s role as a once and future king — it’s hard to see being in any hurry to start a new race.