Jimmy Fallon takes over 'Tonight Show.' Will viewers show patience? (+video)
Jimmy Fallon will have to earn his 'Tonight Show' audience in a competitive late-night market, say experts. Mixed reviews of first show notwithstanding, there are signs he can succeed.
Jimmy Fallon took over NBC's "The Tonight Show"Â Monday night with a characteristically sincere pronouncement â âthis is importantâ âÂ as he introduced everyoneÂ from himself as a proud 39-year-old dad of a new daughter and his parents (in the cheering studio audience) to his announcer, his cue cards, and even the four-leaf clover that guides him to his stage mark for the opening monologue.
Mr. Fallon also reminded folks that the show has returned to its Manhattan roots. The late-night franchise began in the Big Apple more than half a century ago with hosts Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and even Johnny Carson, who then movedÂ it to âbeautiful downtown Burbank,â some 42 years ago.
The showÂ is back in its originalÂ setting in a Rockefeller Center studio. But storied history aside, hosting hand-offs are by no means guaranteed to be successful, as NBCâs fumbled 2009 attempt to replace Jay Leno with Conan OâBrien amply demonstrated.
And so, say TV experts, Fallonâs ramble down memory lane was as much reminding viewers thatÂ the show has survived previous incarnations as it was asking for their patience with this latest transformation.
The new host is going to need this, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.Â
âLate night has completely transformed since the early days of a single showÂ dominating the time slot,â he points out. The 11:30 p.m. TV landscape not only boasts more than a dozen competing comedy shows â from David Letterman to Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, and Arsenio Hall â but it has cultÂ programs such as Adult Swim drawing off eyeballs of the night owls.
Commentary on Fallonâs debut has been mixed, ranging from the New York Daily news, whichÂ gave the show a BrooklynÂ shrug, to Time.comâs suggestion that the show may be âincredibly brilliant,â to the Hollywood ReporterâsÂ cautionary note that just because you got the job, doesnât guarantee success: âThere is no narrative now about hallowed tradition.â
Fallon will have to earn his audience, says Professor Thompson, butÂ there is reason to suggest he may succeed, where for instance, the edgier Mr. OâBrien did not. (His ascension lasted less than a year, culminating withÂ NBC unceremoniously returning Leno to the chair.)
Success in the 21st century may mean combining the banal with the brilliant and a touch of business savvy, says Thompson, to come up with the sort of middle-of-the road format that will appeal to a wide range of viewers.
This was Carsonâs real gift, says Thompson. âCarson has become sanctified as TV genius,âÂ he says, but âthe fact is if you randomly look at Carson âTonight Showsâ they wereÂ kind of âeh.â âÂ Carson did nice interviews, but, says Thompson, what he really did âwas make people comfortable.â
Indeed, if such a thing is already possible, the debut show featured vintage good-natured Jimmy Fallon, says Mark Lashley, a professor of communication at La Salle University in Philadelphia.
Fallon got guests involved with the comedy bits, he notes,Â as actor Will Smith joined for a very funny âEvolution of Hip-Hop Dancing,âÂ there were tried and true routinesÂ such as the âTonight Show Superlativeâ segment, andÂ incredibly enthusiastic celebrity interviews.
And in a segment with the band U2 that closed the broadcast, says Professor Lashley via e-mail,Â the show served up âa really fun, outside-the-box acoustic performance that got the crowd, the house band, Smith, and Fallon involved (while still managing to poke a little fun at the faux-spontaneity of it all).â
After decades of anti-comedy from the likes of Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman, and CBS competitor David Letterman, Fallonâs genuine affability may be the secret to success in 21st century late-night broadcasting, says Len Shyles, a communications professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia.
âLate-night television represents reassuring and light entertainment, has a track record, sets a tone that viewers are familiar with and have come to enjoy,â he says via e-mail.Â But perhaps more than the longevity of the genre that breeds comfort and familiarity, he notes, the excellence of the production values makes for a more enjoyable "lean-back" experience.
TheÂ evening showcased Fallonâs ability to draw A-list talent. A parade of celebrities, including Robert DeNiro, Stephen Colbert, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lady GaGa, Mariah Carey, and more streamed onstage in a bit about a $100 bet Fallon supposedly made with friends over whether he would ever ascend to âThe Tonight Showâ berth.
And perhaps, more pointedly, in a nod to the iconic London swansong by the Beatles in 1969, the band U2 performed on the Rockefeller Center rooftop against the backdrop of a multi-colored New York City skyline sunset.
âI think of events like the Superbowl and the Olympics, and I think broadcasters still are the best at doing such challenging productions,â notes Shyles.Â Perhaps broadcasting still has its advantages in reaching large audiences, he says,Â âEven in the world of late-night entertainment.â
Maybe late-night programs like âThe Tonight Showâ still benefit from operating out of a broadcast model, he adds, even though there is now an online alternative.