Over the course of eight weeks during this year’s hot season, staffers set about creating a bunch of new contests that “Tonight” host Jimmy Fallon can try with guests. One of Fallon’s strengths has been the creation of a “play along” attitude that gets celebrities to do everything from impressions of famous musicians to egg tosses. Thanks to the work this summer, he will soon be able to offer a few new tests of skill.
“We are still tinkering with them,” says Chris Miller, who joined “Tonight” as producer and showrunner in March. “We are building sets, and some of them have electronic devices and meters.”
Like many late-night shows, “Tonight” is emerging from one of the genre’s most discombobulated eras. Hosts like Fallon and rivals Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel had to navigate their way through several years in which tackling divisive political issues became de rigueur, even as rules around production during a global pandemic made even the programs’ signature elements — in-studio visits with celebrities — much more difficult to achieve.
In his early tenure, Miller is reaping some rewards by helping Fallon be Fallon. “Tonight” has been getting back to part of its core. In August, Madonna visited the program to perform “Music” with Fallon and house band the Roots and an assortment of classroom instruments — a segment that generated much buzz for “Tonight” and Fallon’s tenure on NBC’s “Late Night.” Getting everyone together for such an effort was too challenging during Covid times. But the sketch still has appeal. Madonna was so interested in doing the segment, says Miller, that she agreed to come in the night before her appearance to pre-tape some pieces of it.
“For so many people, you don’t need to describe ‘The Tonight Show.’ It’s been around for so many years and people innately go to it. It’s comedy. It’s lighter. Whether it was Carson or Leno, it wasn’t ever really heavy, but it was heartfelt,” says Miller. “It felt safe. It felt like I can safely go to bed with this show and I’m not going to hit any potholes that are going to take me in a direction I didn’t want to be taken at midnight before the lights go out.”
In recent weeks, “Tonight” has been winning key crowds. For seven weeks, it has nabbed the biggest share of the audiences that advertisers covet — people between 18 and 49 who watch the show live or on the day it is broadcast. For the first two of those weeks, it tied in the category with CBS’ “Late Show,” but in the past five, buoyed by a multi-night visit from Bruce Springsteen and appearances by Jerry Seinfeld and Miley Cyrus, it has moved ahead.
Such results suggest late-night crowds may want something a little different in an era when former President Trump isn’t dominating headlines. “I do think there is a fatigue with American politics,” Miller says, Yes, “Tonight” offers Trump jokes, Biden jokes and will weigh in on such things as Herschel Walker running for U.S. Senator. But it might open with a funny sketch about office parties starting up again after the pandemic. When it comes to politics, he says, “people either don’t care or they are like, ‘I do not want to go through this again.’”
Rather than examining headlines, the producer has been scrutinizing other parts of the show. Miller’s “Tonight” arrival has dovetailed with that of a new head booker, Lori Blackman-Master, who enjoyed a long tenure on “Ellen.” Paul Masella, a veteran “Tonight” writer, was promoted to co-head writer alongside a new hire, Mason Steinberg. Miller has been captivated by a collection of sketches that run on TV screens for the show’s in-studio audience and has been asking staff members if any of the concepts seen there would be worth reviving.
“Those bits are so fun, so I’d go down to the writing department, and they’d tell me, ‘Yeah, you know, we stopped doing them.’ Which made sense at the time,” says Miller. But now he has been asking, “Can we bring that back?”
Fallon has never stopped playing games with guests, but Miller has tried to organize the work behind it. Before sending staffers to “Game Camp” this summer, he commissioned a new look at every game Fallon has played on “Tonight” since he took over the show from Jay Leno in 2014. Entries contained pictures, links to videos, and a list of each sketch’s peculiarities. One might require a lot of guest rehearsal, for example, and not be viable for busy visitors. Fallon also weighed in, offering notes on what worked in the past — and what looked good on paper but proved tough to make work on stage.
In addition to reviving some pre-pandemic touchstones, “Tonight” has tested some other concepts. There was a 1980s-themed broadcast that paired Debbie Gibson with The Roots. And the show has nabbed musicians like Megan Thee Stallion, Jack Harlow, and Bruce Springsteen to take part in multi-night “residencies” that ask them to do more than just play a musical number. Some even interview guests alongside the host. “It’s so fun for them to come on and not have to do the thing they normally do. It’s just a different layer for them,” says the producer.
He hopes “Tonight” will host more musicians for similar visits and is working to take the show for a visit to another city in 2023.
“Tonight” has cycled through several showrunners in recent years. Some have been closer to Fallon and others have been closer to the network. Miller, who worked with Drew Barrymore and her Flower Films production company for 23 years, says he’s spent a considerable amount of time managing different backers behind a piece of entertainment. “What is producing? If you’re the person that is in charge of your friend’s birthday party — Tammy, you have to have the cake here by 2 p.m. Did you send the invitations out? — that’s producing. You are saying that we are going to deliver this thing at this time under this budget as agreed to,” he explains. “My mind was always sort of like that.”
Working with Barrymore meant having a connection to Fallon. Nancy Juvonen, Fallon’s wife, has been Barrymore’s production partner for years. Miller recalls working on the 2005 movie “Fever Pitch” that paired Barrymore with a young Fallon.
Now, Miller is trying to keep things running at a late night show when the format is under new scrutiny from the networks that back it. After an explosion of new nighttime efforts in the wake of David Letterman and Jon Stewart stepping away from CBS and Comedy Central, respectively, a shake-out seems to be in place. NBC has stopped offering a late-night program at 1:30 a.m. and Comedy Central is in the midst of figuring out the direction of “The Daily Show” following the end of Trevor Noah’s tenure. James Corden, who is supposed to appear on “Tonight” later this week, is expected to step away from CBS’ “Late Late Show” next year.
All of this could open new opportunities to grab audience for the programs that remain. It’s not lost on Miller that Corden’s CBS show, filled with segments like “Carpool Karaoke” or “Crosswalk The Musical,:” may be the closest in tone to Fallon’s work. “Maybe people will rely on us more for that type of thing. Maybe we will have to step up that thing even more than we are already trying to do. But I am definitely up for that challenge.”
The producer could face others in months to come. Audiences who once stayed up late to watch Fallon and his rivals no longer have to do so. They can watch clips on YouTube at times of their own choosing, or stream any number of full episodes on a whim. That increases the need for more bespoke content that speaks to audiences with different behaviors, “I don’t want to miss out on giving a large segment of viewers what they want,” says Miller.
The trip to Game Camp earlier this year may have been prescient, because the demand for Fallon’s contests is likely to be on the rise.