Fallon is confident that what he and his cohorts find amusing will also amuse America, but members of the media and the blogosphere don’t seem quite as sure of his ability to fill O’Brien’s shoes. One recalls Fallon’s recurring impression on SNL of the then MTV host Carson Daly—in which Fallon would open by saying “Hi, I’m Carson Daly, and I’m a massive tool”—and worries it will come back to haunt him. (Coincidentally, Fallon’s new show is followed by Daly’s on NBC.) But Fallon is almost bewilderingly calm, and the encouragement of his inner circle seems to magically obliterate the cacophony of criticism outside it. “I asked my wife what she thought of me doing this,” he says, “and she was like, ‘Yeah, you’d be phenomenal!’” Just before his hiring was announced, he recalls, he talked to Jay Leno, “and he was like, ‘So, uh, you’re gonna do late night?’” Fallon says in an impeccable Leno impression. “And he told me he thought I’d be really good at it.” It’s both endearing and perplexing to hear him relay such anecdotes with zero arrogance but total faith.
The clincher endorsement came from Lorne Michaels, SNL’s creator and the man who, in 1993, plucked O’Brien from the obscurity of the writers’ room and placed him in a host chair. In 2004, as Fallon was getting ready to leave SNL, Michaels told him to keep in mind that they’d need a replacement for Conan five years down the line, and when that time arrived, Michaels came knocking. “I didn’t really have to do much selling at the network,” Fallon admits. “Lorne giving you the stamp of approval is pretty much enough.”
“Jimmy is great in movies,” says Michaels. “But his gift is a more rare one. He can go in front of an audience, and something remarkable happens.”
Indeed, Fallon seems eager to leave behind the world of film, where his success has been lukewarm at best. “I kind of miss being in front of an audience,” he says. “If you tell a joke and it bombs, then you know immediately. Whereas if you do a movie, it comes out a year later, and they go, ‘Eh.’ And you think, Really? That was a year of my life.”
While his new gig will be even more of a grind than SNL, it is, he says, a more grown-up kind of grind—something that appeals to him now. It turns out that the oft messy-haired and T-shirt-clad Fallon, who was perceived as something of a Peter Pan playboy during his SNL years, is actually quite traditional. In 2007 he married 40-year-old Nancy Juvonen, Drew Barrymore’s producing partner. The couple are currently combining Fallon’s apartment in New York’s Gramercy Park neighborhood with an adjacent unit he bought years ago in the anticipation of “meet[ing] somebody and then whatever.” Fallon offers that he “totally” wants to have kids. “Movies are tough,” he says. “The money’s amazing, but the hours are weird, and you’re away from home for long stretches.” And whereas SNL meant working from 3 p.m. to 2 a.m., with Late Night, “it’s daytime hours. It’s more adult hours.”