Jimmy Fallon moved to take NBC’s “Tonight Show” from “at home” to “at large” by bringing the venerable program back to NBC’s New York studios after weeks of broadcasting the show from his house.
“Normalcy, any type of normalcy feels great,” Fallon told viewers during Monday’s “Tonight” broadcast, dressed in casual clothes, with cameramen wearing facial masks and members of the show’s in-house Roots band scattered around the studio for proper social distancing. “These are the hardest times to do comedy, but they are also the times when we need it the most,” he said. There was no audience in the studio to respond, and Fallon depended on reactions from the musicians and the crew to fuel his performance.
“Tonight” is the first of late-night’s first-line broadcast programs to chart some kind of return to the wee-hours look and feel viewers have known for decades. Conan O’Brien started on July 6 to hold forth from Largo at the Coronet, an Los Angeles cabaret space, for his TBS program, preferring a smaller venue than the Warner Brothers studio in Burbank he typically uses in less unprecedented times.
All of TV’s late-night programs are trying to work their way back to the format viewers have watched for decades: a host, in front of a live audience, delivering jokes and interviewing celebrities with some sort of band or sidekick helping them keep things going. The coronavirus pandemic has made much of that untenable, and most of the hosts continue to deliver their programs from home or a remote location, chatting with guests via videoconferencing software.
Fallon did not deliver a “Tonight Show” from the pre-pandemic era. While he did indulge in a sketch, there were no games with guests. He talked to Charlize Theron about raising Black children in modern America and asked New York Governor Mario Cuomo about police reform – weightier topics than one has come to expect from “Tonight” under his tenure, since the host tends to avoid politics and hot-button topics.
Broadcasting during the pandemic, however, has brought out a new side of Fallon. Viewers have seen him holding forth from a New York home with his family: taking walks with wife Nancy Juvonen, juggling kids’ needs while interviewing guests; and incorporating his young daughters, Winnie and Franny, into the action. He has grumbled that his wife, who has been heavily involved in production from the family house, doesn’t laugh at his monologue jokes, which often scroll in front of him via the use of mobile devices.
“Tonight” returned to NBC, but it did not broadcast from its regular studio Monday night. Instead, Fallon led the proceedings from NBC’s Studio 6A, a facility that had previously been designed for Megyn Kelly’s morning program that has been utilized more recently for some of Chris Hayes’ MSNBC broadcasts and other “Today” efforts. His set evoked the look of some of the rooms in his house from which he had been broadcasting.
Other late-night programs have explored the possibility of returning their hosts to more familiar environments. Bill Maher’s producers would like to bring the weekly HBO program back to its base at the Television City production facility. James Corden’s producers realize a “Late Late Show” broadcast from the host’s garage won’t help give rise to product integrations or new segments that might serve as fodder for spin-off series – generating important revenue.
Yet many of the hosts are staying put, at least for now. Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers were among those Monday night doing a program remotely. ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, meanwhile, has seized the opportunity – the network has cut his show to half an hour in order to give more spotlight to the news division’s “Nightline” – to take a few weeks off. Guest host Iliza Shlesinger appeared in his place Monday evening, delivering remarks about “cancel culture” and interviewing Laverne Cox.