For me, the funniest thing about Jimmy Fallon is his inflection of those two words, in his recurring “Thank You Note” segment on Late Night. If you watched the show Friday nights, you’ve seen the shtick—to the accompaniment of a poignant piano theme, Fallon takes a few minutes before the first guest segment to catch up on his thank you notes, speaking them out loud as he writes them on cards (which he doesn’t take the time to seal). They’re often addressed not to individual people but to inanimate objects and concepts, as in:
“Thank you, cotton candy, for making my grandmother’s hair look delicious.”
“Thank you, microbreweries, for making my alcoholism seem like a neat hobby.”
Clever as many of these are—two volumes of them have been published—I think it’s less the quips than Fallon’s presentation that makes them funny: his soft, lost-in-thought murmur, and the sense of spiritual cleansing provided by the music.
Born in Brooklyn but raised in upstate New York, Fallon was a Saturday Night Live nut from early childhood. He broke onto that show in his mid-20s in 1998, with his gift for impressions, especially of musicians. By 2000 he was the co-anchor, with Tina Fey, of SNL’s “Weekend Update” segment.
He acted in a few movies, notably Almost Famous, Woody Allen’s Anything Else and the dreadful action comedy Taxi, without making much of an impression, before being tapped to take over for Conan O’Brien on Late Night when O’Brien, in turn, left to take over Jay Leno’s Tonight Show for what turned out to be a painfully short tenure—NBC returned the antsy Leno to the host’s chair, and O'Brien was exiled to TBS, where he remains.
Fallon, however, settled in nicely in the Late Night slot, with his thank-you notes and his good-natured musical parodies. Now, after Leno’s teary-eyed farewell earlier this month, and some time off for the first week of the Olympics, Fallon yesterday became the 6th host of The Tonight Show (or maybe the 7th, if you count Leno twice).
It’s hard to say, but I think it could be a good fit. Although he had some fine bits—his “headlines” routine, especially—I was never able to warm up to Leno as the great Carson’s successor. Leno, with his prickly, nettled persona, was one of the best American stand-ups ever back in the ‘80s, but he grotesquely softened and dumbed-down his act for The Tonight Show—there was always something unctuous and wheedling and pitifully desperate not to offend about him. And ill-treated though he was, it must be admitted that somehow O’Brien’s aggressive brilliance didn’t quite fit the classic flavor of that show either.
Fallon, on the other hand, has always used a soft, fuzzy persona, an amiable vagueness. Talented though he is, you wouldn’t think to use the word “brilliant” in connection with him. I don’t mean to suggest that he isn’t intelligent, only that his appeal as a performer derives more from his likability than from his intelligence or wit. He’s unlikely to replace Carson—nobody’s likely to do that—but unlike Leno or O’Brien, he has no need to dumb down his humor to be easy for the mainstream audience to take. Put bluntly, he doesn’t need to sell out to succeed.
And he says he isn’t going to: “I’m not going to change anything,” he’s reportedly said. “It’s more eyeballs watching, but it’s the same show.”
Based on his first show, he seems to be keeping his word. After a brief prologue in which he acknowledged the past hosts and touchingly introduced his parents and explained what The Tonight Show meant to him as a kid, he went back behind the curtain and then re-emerged to do a more or less business-as-usual show. The guests were perhaps bigger-name than usual, and a gag early on allowed for a parade of really big-name cameos, but the loose style—a silly dance skit with Will Smith; a lovely acoustic number by U2—was the same that he’s been using for years, an hour later. Would that Leno had had the same confidence.
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