It’s probably too early to evaluate Jimmy Fallon as a late-night talk show host. His performance on the first night of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon was very weak: he looked nervous, filled the gap after every failed joke by repeating the joke that just bombed (oh, what I’d give to see comedians just go back to saying “two, three, four” in that situation), and seemed to be trying too hard to gain cool cred from his undeniably cool band, The Roots.
But, as Fallon, Lorne Michaels and everyone else involved with the show would no doubt want to remind us, Conan O’Brien wasn’t very good when he started as a host, and look at him now: he’s going to L.A. to be the guy who gets guests after Jay Leno turns them down. NBC will stick with Fallon, and he’ll get more comfortable and less flop-sweaty. I assume last night’s ratings will give him some confidence.
However, it’s not too early to talk about what kind of personality Fallon is trying to project. Ever since Letterman came along, many talk shows have really been meta-shows: Letterman, who had open contempt for the format and many of his guests, signaled to us that every episode was really about his own adventures as the host of a late-night talk show. Conan O’Brien was the same way: Late Night With Conan O’Brien was about a guy who had no business doing this show, or even wearing a suit, making a mockery of the stuffy late-night form. His take on The Tonight Show, with Andy Richter joining him as his announcer, will have a similar feel: Conan’s the upstart who’s out of place in Johnny Carson and Jay Leno’s world. Leno is the only late-night talk show host who acts like he’s completely comfortable in that role.
Fallon seems almost like he’s trying to do a more likable version of O’Brien’s fish-out-of-water shtick. His first episode abounded in awkward or embarrassing moments, and they can’t all have been unintentional: when he did his Robert DeNiro impression to DeNiro’s face, it was almost like one of his SNL sketches, except that he didn’t annoy us all by breaking up and laughing. He has an aw-shucks, little-boy quality that is very calculated; if Conan was the Harvard wise-ass let loose in late-night, then Fallon is trying to be the average guy who is uncomfortable in this setting because he’s just like us, nervous and star-struck.
Of course, that act is an attempt to compensate for his many weaknesses as a performer: his joke delivery is wooden, he’s inordinately pleased with himself, he doesn’t play off the studio audience very well, and on SNL he was mostly known for being too unprofessional to avoid breaking character during a scene. But Conan managed to turn his weaknesses into strengths by making jokes out of them. If Fallon can do the same, he may someday get to host a show at 10 p.m. to follow Jay’s inevitable takeover of NBC’s 9 o’clock hour.