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‘Tonight Show’ Writers Explain How Jimmy Fallon Pulled Off the Nicolas Cage ‘Tiger King’ Sketch

Jimmy Fallon as Nicolas Cage as
Courtesy of YouTube/The Tonight Show

Writers from “The Tonight Show” virtually joined Variety’s Marc Malkin to discuss working from home, ideas that didn’t make it to air and how Tuesday’s hilarious “Tiger King” sketch came to be.

Presented by the Writers Guild Foundation, the panel consisted of “Tonight Show” head writer Rebecca Drysdale along with Gerard Bradford and Jeremy Bronson, who are both writers and producers. Although social distancing guidelines have turned their writer’s room into a “writer’s Zoom,” all three have leaned in to the reality of quarantine to produce some of Fallon’s funniest sketches yet.

Drysdale was named head writer only a month ago, meaning that she has not actually been in the official writer’s room yet. Despite this, Drysdale said she has enjoyed the challenge the quarantine has presented the “Tonight Show” team.

“It’s exciting because it’s been like, ‘Okay, instead of what can’t we do with our limitations, what can we do?’ What can we do with Zoom that we wouldn’t even be able to do normally, for example”, Drysdale said. “Let’s lean into our limitations and get a little punk rock about it and see what we can make, instead of worrying about what we can’t make.”

The perfect example of this mindset is “Jimmy Fallon as Nicolas Cage as ‘Tiger King,'” a sketch in which Fallon is dressed head-to-toe as Joe Exotic from “Tiger King” to spoof one of his songs — all while doing an impression of Nicolas Cage to mimic his recent casting announcement. The result is spot-on, but the video wasn’t as easy to make as it looks.

The idea for the sketch, which Bronson came up with the night before it aired, required an elaborate plan and extreme efficiency. However, it was almost halted by a wardrobe malfunction.

The writers had already ordered a fake mullet, mustache and tiger-striped shirt for another Joe Exotic sketch, but when that idea didn’t run, they returned the items. Luckily, the “Tonight Show” crew was able to step in.

“Miraculously, it all ended up at Jimmy’s 12 hours later,” Bronson said. “Our crew is really amazing at turning that stuff around.”

The writing, filming and editing for the sketch was all done within 24 hours, and was still being completed an hour before it was set to air.

“Things were happening at the same time, which as a one-foot-in-the-door kind of outsider is pretty damn impressive,” Drysdale said. “It was just last minute, get it done. And then someone had the brilliant idea of also putting a music video in it.”

Such is the nature of late-night television, even under quarantine. Bradford told Variety the story of one of his sketches that made it all the way to rehearsal, but was cut at the final moment. Its name: “The Perfect Butthole.”

“It was basically a guy who went to get a prostate exam, and the doctors were astonished at what they saw. They kept bringing other people in to look at it, and everyone was just shocked at how perfect it was,” Bradford said. “The night it was going to air was the night that they were going to announce that Jimmy was getting ‘The Tonight Show.’ And someone in production, in all their wisdom, said, ‘I’m not sure that we should be doing this tonight.’ It got cut, thank God.”

With Fallon now in his sixth year hosting “The Tonight Show,” the writers have seen many sketches and guests come and go. However, the one guest Fallon wishes he could have on the show is none other than the Pope.

“That’s the big fish,” Bradford said. “So if anybody has an in, or his number…”

Overall, Drysdale said that within her first month as head writer of the show — even from at home — she has noticed an undeniable joy surrounding Fallon and her team that is different from other shows.

“The mission seems more to be about being funny and being playful,” Drysdale said. With the guests on the show there’s so many games, and there’s just a sense of play. There’s a slide in Jimmy’s house — it’s part of who he is.”