Jimmy Fallon broadcast his first-ever episode of The Tonight Show last night, and this is where I’d love nothing better than to proclaim the show a total triumph or disaster based on one 40-minute show. But I can’t do that. I can, however, make some observations about who he seemed to be trying to please—and, especially, to reassure. Specifically, I felt he did a very good job of trying to reassure the regular audience for the show, Jay Leno’s older, Middle-American audience.
You’ll remember that one of Conan O’Brien’s perceived problems was that he made no effort to keep that audience, either dismissing it as unimportant (since it was largely outside the 18-49 demo) or just feeling that he couldn’t change his act to please people who had never watched him before. His surrealism, sarcasm, and comedic hostility to old people remained intact, and it may have hurt him more than he anticipated: partly because the station affiliates tend to be run by older people who prefer Leno’s style of comedy, partly because everyone outside the 18-34 age bracket started to run away from the show almost as soon as he began his run, causing NBC to brand him as a comic with a hopelessly narrow appeal. Adult Swim shows don’t need to appeal to Middle American middle-aged viewers, but a talk show that airs right after the local news is always going to require an ability to please the same audience that watches those local news broadcasts.
That audience, I think, is what Jimmy Fallon was trying to court last night. There were lots of subtle little bits of reassurance that he is not the youth-oriented, exclusionary comic that O’Brien was seen as. He mentioned his age up front (I’m going to be very embarrassed if it turns out O’Brien did the same thing, but whatever), letting new viewers know that he’s not as young as he looks. He mentioned that he has a wife and a child, that he’s a family man. In introducing The Roots, one of the first thing he mentioned was that they’re very versatile and that they can play with Tony Bennett – in other words, they’re not just a hip-hop band, they can do the jazz-oriented style that older viewers are used to in a talk show. He kept the ’90s nostalgia references to a minimum – one Saved by the Bell reference, one Fresh Prince joke – and spent a lot of time cutting to his parents in the audience.
Taken together, everything seemed to say: do not fear me. I am not a young host for young people, I’m trying to be a host for everyone. Even if a lot of Leno’s audience peels off to Letterman, as will probably happen, the note of reassurance and inclusion may help Fallon keep more of that audience. Or at least it will reassure the people who really matter, NBC executives and affiliate managers, that he’s not trying to alienate Leno’s viewers. That particular kind of reassurance may be key to his survival as he grows into the job.