Jimmy Fallon: Talking Back
Late night’s newest host, Jimmy Fallon, hopes to win over America by showing just how likable he really is.
Jimmy Fallon is sitting in a crummy-looking chair in his new corner office on the seventh floor of NBC’s Rockefeller Center headquarters, a decent space with a decent view, but hardly the setting in which one imagines a talk-show titan conducting business. The drab old furniture is temporary—“I gotta get Thom Filicia in here,” says Fallon, referencing the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy design guru. But the comedian, who will take over Late Night on NBC in March when Conan O’Brien jumps to The Tonight Show, is hardly the type to pull a diva act over upholstery—or anything, for that matter.
In fact, Fallon looks perfectly comfortable reclining in this beat-up armchair the color of days-old oatmeal, talking into the tiny microphone that’s hooked to the collar of his untucked button-down. He is recording a voiceover for one of the short videos he’s been posting almost daily on the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon Web site. Lorne Michaels, the show’s executive producer, came up with the idea of the “Webisodes” as a way of both attracting advance fans and getting Fallon, who’s done movies for the five years since he left Saturday Night Live, back into the groove of interacting with an audience. In this case, the audience is virtual, and interaction involves viewer comments left on the Web site. “They are just brutally honest,” Fallon, 34, says softly. “I’m embracing it. When it’s constructive, it’s good. They’re like, ‘You touch your hair too much. You say “um” too much.’ And you’re like, ‘You’re right, I gotta stop that.’ But when it’s like, ‘Jimmy Fallon’s a douche bag,’ what am I gonna do? I don’t wanna be one. But I don’t know what to do differently to make that guy like me.”
Today’s Webisode is a humorous meditation on New Year’s resolutions, and creating it essentially involves Fallon being filmed in his office by Gavin Purcell, a young coproducer whom he hired away from Attack of the Show, a technology-oriented pop-culture variety hour that airs to a cult following on cable channel G4TV. “I’m going to quit running up stairs two or three at a time,” Fallon says in a low, contemplative tone that’s reminiscent of Jack Handey’s classic “Deep Thoughts” bit from SNL. “It’s dangerous, and it’s uncalled for. I will stop referring to my food as ‘fuel,’” he continues, “as in, ‘I’ve gotta get fuel in me, and quick.’”
A couple of writers, all clad in the requisite slacker-wear, observe from couches, spontaneously suggesting new lines and offering criticisms of Fallon’s delivery. “I’d do that part much slower,” says one, and Fallon obliges. There is no star in this room, no outsize ego, just a bunch of guys (six of the show’s seven writers are men) trying to make one another laugh.
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.”
The revelation that Fallon is so normal might be just the thing that wins over America. “He’s a nice boy from upstate,” says Tina Fey, who was Fallon’s SNL costar and coanchor on the show’s “Weekend Update” segment. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone in my life who likes talking to people more than that kid. Just try to go to a deli with him.”
Growing up in Saugerties, New York, Fallon always dreamed of starring on SNL; he and his sister would re-enact the skits, and at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, he would hole up every weekend to watch the show. A computer science major, he dropped out in his final year to move to L.A., where he took classes at the Groundlings Theater. At 24, he auditioned for SNL and won over Michaels with impressions of Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Adam Sandler.
But Fallon knows he’ll need to rely on his own persona as a host, and his unshakable optimism aside, he expects that it will take him some time to get into the groove. “Conan said, ‘You gotta do it to learn; you won’t know what it is until you do it,’” he recalls. “So I’m anxious for that first show. Because the second one is gonna be better.”
In fact, it took O’Brien a couple of years to hit his stride, but television has changed dramatically since he debuted in 1993, and Fallon is well aware that today a network is less likely to give a flailing project that long to find an audience. “Especially with the economy being what it is, you can’t really screw around.… I don’t think I’m nervous that I’ll be…fired right off the bat,” he says slowly. “I mean, probably, hopefully they’ll give me a year.”
Rick Ludwin, NBC’s head of late-night programming, has high hopes for Fallon. “When you look at Letterman, Carson, Leno and O’Brien, the common quality is they’re funny but also have a certain work ethic,” he says. “This job is a treadmill that won’t end, and you need discipline. Jimmy has that.” Months before going on air, Fallon is already having his writers work on monologue jokes. He aims to be a modern host—“I like Xbox and video games, so, yeah, that will be part of the show”—but he doesn’t plan to upend the traditional late-night format. “I think that’s where a lot of people make mistakes, when they try to reinvent things,” he says. “This show will be my own just by having me host it. It’s not the Conan O’Brien show, because Conan’s not there.”
One thing that sets him apart from his fellow hosts is his youthful love of all things pop culture. “My monologues will be more entertainment focused,” he says. “I really don’t know much about politics and sports. I’ve started reading all the papers, but before I did ‘Weekend Update,’ I only read USA Today. I liked the colors.” Concentrating more on, say, Britney’s love life than on Obama’s stimulus package may prove a boon, especially now that Leno has signed on to do a show at 10 p.m. “Leno’s going to be doing his great riffs on the day’s news at 10, and Conan will be doing the same thing at 11:30, and by 12:30, it’s like, okay, what are you going to talk about? I’d need to do stuff exclusively from, like, BBC News. People would be like, ‘I guess that’s funny…in India.’”
Nevertheless, he retains his trademark relaxed enthusiasm when he talks about the role of the late-night host as a sort of guide through public triumphs and tragedies. “Watching Dave Letterman after 9/11, as a New Yorker, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s exactly how I feel…,’” he says. “And hopefully I can be a voice of America like that; hopefully people will say, ‘I wonder what Jimmy Fallon thinks.’”
The only thing Fallon seems truly worried about is what will happen if he’s a great success. “If this works, it’s all you do,” he says. “There is no career after this. Seinfeld said to me: ‘If you’re good at this, you can’t quit. You do this till you die. It’s a Pope job.’” But it’s a fate he seems to have already embraced. “I can see myself settling into this chair,” he says, “and being here for a long time.”