The very first incarnation of The Tonight Show may be ancient history, but Steve Allen’s first monologue from 1954 exists in some visual form for everyone to see. In this iconic opening, Steve Allen says: “This show is going to go on forever.” And, if you consider the lifespan of a housefly, the show has indeed gone on forever.
But what show did NBC bring to American TV for over 60 years? What show broadcast mightily from New York City until 1972, when California stole it away? What show brought jokes, gags, iconic musical performances, and smiles to the airwaves every weeknight at 11:35 PM? If you’re saying, “The Tonight Show,” you’re right. If you’re saying, “But Will, we already established this article was about The Tonight Show,” you’re wrong.
This article is about The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Ladies and gentlemen: This is what the show was meant to be.
The allure of The Tonight Show is not the jokes. It’s not the special guests. Any funny guy or gal can set up a camera in a studio and make a late-night show. What people come for — as Will Smith aptly put it in his special guest appearance — is the heart. Carson had heart. Leno has heart, most of the time. Conan has heart, which you can see if he takes off his shirt. The reason Jimmy Fallon is behind that desk from now until whenever is because he loves his job, his viewers, and his life. He’s just a good upstanding guy. His nod to Mom & Dad Fallon in the monologue proved that, although it barely needed proving.
Jimmy’s start also marks The Tonight Show's first broadcast from New York in over 40 years. Why did the show leave in the first place? Some say Johnny Carson got tired of the weather. Some say the network did it. Others say Johnny was so famous in New York that he was constantly mobbed. In that case, moving to LA seems like a terrible idea. And of course, it was terrible for New York. But with Fallon at the reins and the Roots set up in Studio 6-B, the lights shine bright at 30 Rock again. Note that 6-B is the same studio where The Tonight Show began in 1954, which means that on September 27, the show will celebrate its 60th anniversary “at home.” (Unfortunately, Steve Allen will not be available.)
But enough of the show as a whole. This first episode proved all of the groundbreaking new ways the Tonight Show was going to evolve, or — in some cases — revisit old ideas. The opening monologue saw Jimmy introduce himself, his parents, Steve Higgins, and The Roots, as if the show were a brand new entity from Late Night. Then he came out to a second introduction and performed his monologue, which — while not his strongest — was a promise of good things to come. It felt like a well-rehearsed pilot which went off without a hitch.
The toss to the desk was smooth, and then came the next bit, which proved that the night would be magical. Jimmy called out, “To my buddy who said I’d never host The Tonight Show: You owe me 100 bucks!” Then the buddies came out: Robert DeNiro, Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian, and Mariah Carey, to name a few. Joan Rivers even came out for a kiss, which ends her long-running ban on the show. To end the parade, Stephen Colbert came out, dumped 10,000 pennies on Fallon’s desk and body, and screamed: “Welcome to 11:30, bitch!” It was a stunning display of celebrity support which left the audience both in-house and at home speechless. But of course, no one was more excited than Jimmy.
Higgins introduced the next segment: A parody of The Evolution Of Dance with Jimmy and special guest Will Smith. The segment, “The Evolution Of Hip-Hop,” is based on a dated Youtube video, but the laughs were there, and that’s what matters most. Jimmy has a way of taking old ideas and giving them life again, so this sketch went off without a hitch. Some other critics might disagree, but the audience liked it throughout, and that’s a litmus test if there ever was one.
Then came U2’s musical performance, which immediately stood out as the highlight of the night. Playing on the Top Of The Rock, U2 performed “Invisible” with a drumline from Rutgers University. The cameras swirled around the band as the crowd cheered and danced at an intimate distance. Better yet, the natural background of the New York City sunset reminded viewers where the magic was happening. It was like something out of Disney World, if Disney World did late-night comedy. (Now there’s a wacky thought.) Hopefully this becomes a regular occurrence, since all we’ve had for outdoor musical performances on late night has come from Jimmy Kimmel. And be honest: Do you watch Kimmel? There can be only one Jimmy at 11:35. ABC had better start looking for a guy with a different name.
Will Smith came out again to hang out with Jimmy, where they talked about Olympics, their daughters, and T-shirts. It was a reminder that Jimmy doesn’t do clean-cut interviews. Leno does interviews. Conan does interviews. Letterman doesn’t do interviews. But Letterman doesn’t do interviews because he likes to crack jokes. Jimmy doesn’t do interviews because he likes to have fun. If Jimmy could cut the interviews and just play ping-pong with his special guests, I’m sure he would. He’d love that, and — probably — so would the world.
After Will came U2 again, and Jimmy asked Bono to make a speech about his coffee cup. Bono played along, of course, since this is the Tonight Show and you’ve got to have fun if you’re sitting on that couch. After a Nelson Mandela name-drop, Jimmy asked the band to play an acoustic version of their Golden Globe award-winning song, “Ordinary Love.” So they did, and halfway through, they asked Jimmy and the Roots to play along. If U2’s concert on the Top Of The Rock was the highlight of the night, their performance in Studio 6-B was the icing on the cake. You could tell from here how important and iconic Jimmy’s become. Bono’s asked him to sing along with U2. Will Smith is dancing with him on stage. He’s got millions of people watching him smile on TV.
It’s worth mentioning here that Carson began hosting the tonight show at the age of 36. Leno was 42 when he began his tenure. Jimmy is 39, and with those few years on his predecessor, he’s introduced a younger vibe to the show. He’s got Twitter. He’s got Tumblr. He’s got a dog and a baby. He’s got no gray hairs to speak of yet. The older audience might leave with Leno, but a crowd of fresh faces is coming in for Fallon, and they’re not going to bed anytime soon.
Everyone gets older. Leno got older, Carson got older. Jimmy Fallon will most certainly get older. TV show hosts do that. But one thing’s for certain: Jimmy’s made his mark on the Tonight Show, and as Steve Allen said 60 years ago, it’s going to last “forever.”
Guest Post: Will blogs at socratescloset.tumblr.com