Open Mic

Jimmy Fallon's 'Tonight Show' Debut Is Tonight. Does He Believe Enough in Himself to Excel? Back to the Future

Chuck Ross Posted February 17, 2014 at 3:18 PM

I’ve seen a leaked script of what may be Jimmy Fallon’s debut tonight on "The Tonight Show," and here’s the cold opening -- instead of a monologue -- which notes that there is plenty of room for ad-libs:

Title cards superimposed on the screen, and unseen announcer Steve Higgins tells us that we’re watching a TV show that’s a salute to Obamacare: “What’s My Pain?”

Close in on Fallon as the host, in a bow-tie, affecting an accent that sounds part American and part British. As a panel of "experts" posture diagnostically on the edge of their chairs, the first contestant signs in, protesting that he’s not a hypochondriac. His name: Mel Brooks. His pulse: 78. His blood pressure: normal. The panel fails in its first snap judgments -- upset stomach, twisted esophagus – and, eventually, as time runs out and Fallon throws all the cards over, we find out that the correct ailment was a sty.

Lucky contestant Brooks wins the full prize: two weeks' free hospitalization.

Furthermore, one of my friends on Madison Ave. slipped me the following NBC sales sheet about the new “Tonight Show": “ ‘The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’ is a completely informal and mostly ad-libbed variety program starring comedian Jimmy Fallon. No set format will be used on the show -- instead the entertainment revolves around Fallon and what he decides to do next. Planning of each night’s show is held to a minimum so as to provide the maximum of elasticity, so that the program can take advantage of any situation that might come up, whether right there in the studio, outside in the street, or in some other city in the U.S. Fallon usually opens the program playing a selection on his guitar -- then he rambles over to his desk to read a few notes and comments on whatever strikes his fancy. One or more guests will be featured on the program.”

Okay, time to ‘fess up. This “memo” from Madison Ave. is actually taken from a real NBC in-house document that was circulated right around the time the "Tonight" show -- then called "Tonight!" -- debuted on Sept. 27, 1954. And it made no mention of Fallon, of course, but referenced the original "Tonight!" show host, Steve Allen, and his playing of a piano, not a guitar. I found it in the 2005 book by Ben Alba, “Inventing Late Night: Steve Allen and the Original ‘Tonight’ Show.”

Likewise, what I wrote above as the leaked “cold opening” of Fallon’s show tonight is almost a verbatim paragraph from Time magazine describing a bit on Allen’s “Tonight!” show that appeared 59 years ago this week. It was a send-up of the then very popular TV quiz show “What’s My Line.” (And the part I said was to be played by Mel Brooks was actually played by Allen “Tonight!” show regular Steve Lawrence, who did numerous comedic bits in addition to singing with Eydie Gorme, on the show.)

I make the comparison of Fallon, 39,  to Allen (who was 32 when he transformed his antic local New York City program into the national "Tonight!" show) because it’s always been clear that Fallon is much closer in style to Allen than to any other of the previous “Tonight” show hosts. Allen was a comedian who was also a pianist, wrote songs and sang. Fallon is a comedian who plays the guitar and drums and not only sings, but, seemingly, can mimic anyone else who has ever sung.

Fallon himself has made the comparison between himself and Allen. In a piece last week in The New York Times, Bill Carter quoted Fallon as saying, “What I do is more a variety show. It’s always been older in style. I’m an old soul. “ Fallon added that his “Tonight” show “will be a new take, but the show will have an old soul.”

Carter continued, “Specifically, [Fallon] feels linked to the first ‘Tonight’ show host, Steve Allen, who featured humor and music but also wild and silly stunts like climbing into a bowl of banana splits.”

Fallon, to his credit, after five years and almost 1,000 episodes of hosting “Late Night,” has a good grasp of what he’s good at and what he’s not good at.

Jimmy Fallon tonight show.pngCarter wrote, “Mr. Fallon acknowledged that his ‘Tonight’ will not be a place to go -- at least initially -- for hard-hitting interviews with politicians or celebrities dealing with some unpleasantness. When President Obama and Mitt Romney were his guests, Mr. Fallon had them ‘slow jam the news,’ one of his signature bits. If that means taking criticism for soft interviews, Mr. Fallon said, so be it.

“ ‘Other people do that better,’ Mr. Fallon said. ‘I leave that to Barbara Walters or Oprah Winfrey. The political stuff? Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, they have it. And Stephen Colbert, who is an animal. He’s amazing. Those guys are good at it. I don’t want to mess with that.’ “

Good for Fallon for recognizing his strengths and weaknesses. But then, oddly, Carter notes that “Mr. Fallon recently began extending his monologues on ‘Late Night’ and will extend them more on 'Tonight,' though [Fallon’s executive producer, Lorne Michaels] noted that one difference would involve inserting news clips to illustrate the humor.”

Huh? Jimmy, you just said Jon Stewart and Colbert and Maher own that space concerning humor about news events. Stick to your strengths, Jimmy. There are enough late-night monologues, and almost all those other hosts do it better than you have done it on "Late Night." Why not start your new gig on the "Tonight" show with various comic cold openings, be them in song or not?

Elsewhere in Carter’s piece Michaels says, “Jimmy is by no means a pure stand-up, far from it.”

And that’s Jimmy’s ace-in-the-hole. It’s why he can be hugely successful on the “Tonight’ show. As Carter notes, “Given the range of his talents -- singing, guitar playing, impressinons, sketches -- the big shift in a Jimmy Fallon 'Tonight Show' would seem to be toward a variety show rather than stand-up based comedy.”

Absolutely. In a real sense it’s what Allen was doing when he started the “Tonight” show 50-plus years ago. For many years, part of what made Letterman so much fun to watch is that he adopted much of Allen’s comic zaniness, from the lunatic stunts Dave would attempt to the kooky interactions he’d have with folks such as local shopkeeper Rupert Jee. And Letterman has acknowledged a debt to Allen.

But Letterman long ago stopped being wacky and madcap in the Allen tradition. Jimmy Kimmel has certainly borrowed from Allen as well -- in particular, his man on the street interview -- which Kimmel calls “Lie Witness News,” is a variation of the man on the street bit Allen popularized.

What Fallon has got that his rivals don’t is his talent for mimicry and musicality. And, of course, the best band on TV.

To ask Fallon to reinvent late-night would be an unfair burden. But certainly he’s got the chops to give "The Tonight Show" the jolt of energy it needs. If he hasn’t already, I’d suggest he study up on what Allen did both on the old “Tonight!” shows, his old prime-time show, and the later syndicated late-night program Allen did for Westinghouse for two seasons in the early 1960s.

Ultimately, Fallon only will be great by not compromising what he feels is right from within himself. But as he starts his new journey tonight, he should keep in mind that glancing back might give him a good blueprint for the future.