The most frequently leveled criticism of Jimmy Fallon is that he laughs too much. He laughs before jokes, after jokes, during jokes. He is TV’s most inveterate cracker-upper since Harvey Korman and Tim Conway on The Carol Burnett Show, or since Paul Lynde’s reign as the perpetually cackling center square on Hollywood Squares. Fallon describes the evolution of his six-season run on Saturday Night Live, from 1998 to 2004, like this: “First I did impressions. Then I wanted to do characters. Then I got to do ‘Weekend Update’ with Tina Fey, which was the greatest. Then I became the guy who laughed in sketches. Then I left.”
Fallon’s critics, who often attack him with an outsize vituperation, seize on this attribute as evidence of some darker character flaw.
His tendency to crack up, they argue, shows he’s smug. Unprofessional. That he thinks he’s way funnier than he is.
There is, however, another possibility, one that is gaining credibility as Late Night With Jimmy Fallon rounds into its successful second year: Maybe Fallon laughs so much because he’s just having a really good time. Back in 2008, he was a surprise choice to succeed Conan O’Brien at Late Night as Conan prepared to take over The Tonight Show. (As you may have heard, there have been a few changes since then.) Fallon’s debut, on March 2, 2009, became a footnote to the epic Leno-Conan-Letterman drama. Yet in the past year, in the relative safety of his 12:35 a.m. time slot, Fallon has been cultivating a distinct, and refreshing, strain of humor: the comedy of unabashed celebration. If other late-night shows have come to feature a familiar crankiness—directed at politicians, our trashy culture, or rival talk-show hosts—Fallon, by contrast, now presides over a goofy, raucous, playful, innovative hour of shameless shenanigans. It’s Jimmy Fallon’s late-night house of joy.
“Do you guys watch the show Glee?” Fallon asked his studio audience. The crowd cheered. “I love it,” he said, “because it reminds me so much of how things are around here at Studio 6B.” This led into an installment of “6-bee,” an ongoing series of sketches that don’t parody Glee so much as affectionately mimic it. In this episode, Fallon leads his 6-bee glee club, made up of Late Night’s crew, into battle with Amy Poehler and the cast of Parks and Recreation. The sketch climaxes with Fallon uniting the two groups in a huge choreographed musical number, singing “We’re Not Gonna Take It!” while he does the robot. Then everyone hugs.
These high-production video shorts—whether it’s a Lost riff called “Late” or the reality-spoofing “The Real Housewives of Late Night”—have become Late Night’s secret weapon: perfect modular morsels that are tailor-made for young, pop-culture-obsessed viewers and ideal for fans on the Internet to pluck out and enjoy. As Michael Shoemaker, Late Night’s producer, explains, the intent of these sketches isn’t satirical but celebratory. “Our approach is, we love this show so much we made our own version of it.” A similar spirit was evident in Fallon’s Glee-inspired opening to the Emmys, which featured TV stars from Jon Hamm to Tina Fey to Kate Gosselin, all dancing and singing to Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” “I was a little fearful of Jimmy doing the Emmys,” says Lorne Michaels, Late Night’s executive producer and Fallon’s mentor since SNL. “Conan had waited five years to do it. But the moment I saw a rehearsal for that opening, you just knew, Oh my God.”
One of the great successes of Late Night is that, rather then shoehorn Fallon into a traditional host’s role, the show has evolved bits like “6-bee” to highlight his strengths. It’s near impossible, for example, to imagine David Letterman starring in an eight-minute Glee-inspired musical sketch that climaxes with him singing Twisted Sister. In fact, it’s near impossible to imagine David Letterman watching Glee. “Conan is a writer; that’s his background,” says Fallon. “Leno’s a stand-up. Letterman’s a stand-up. Kimmel’s a stand-up.” But for Fallon, the variety format fits: “It’s almost like hosting SNL every night of the week.”
As a result, Late Night owes as much to the antic energy of The Muppet Show as it does to Johnny Carson. A lot of Fallon’s in-studio bits—like one called “Models & Buckets,” in which audience members have mystery substances poured onto their heads by models—wouldn’t feel out of place on Nickelodeon. “I’m on so late I’m definitely the last seconds of anyone’s attention,” says Fallon. “So I just want to give them something dumb to laugh at, so they go, ‘That’s funny,’ then fall asleep.”
At a recent taping, Fallon conspired to provide the following entertainment for your last few seconds of consciousness: a duet with Dana Carvey; a visit from costume-wearing metal-mashers Gwar; and a segment called “If Puppies Could Vote,” in which five adorable puppies choose a candidate by descending on one bowl of kibble or the other. Fallon’s best segments are upbeat and rarely have targets, let alone victims. Jay Leno, by contrast, is known as the “nice guy” of late night, but even a signature bit like “Jaywalking” revolves around asking normal people questions, then chuckling at their dumb responses. David Letterman is late night’s crotchety truth-teller, and he perpetually looks like he might walk off his own show in disgust. Fallon’s biggest hit so far came when he staged a number with Justin Timberlake in which they performed a medley tracing the history of rap, starting with the Sugarhill Gang and ending with them bum-rushing the audience to “Empire State of Mind.” There wasn’t even a real joke at its heart (whereas on Conan, the same bit might center on “Isn’t it funny that dorky white Conan is rapping?”). But the clip earned over a million views online.