Fallon’s feel-good-jamboree approach might sound fusty and old-fashioned, but it’s actually a very modern antidote to free-form irony. “Our research has told us that young viewers respond less to angry comedy,” says Brent Haynes, the senior vice-president of comedy and animation at MTV, which recently hosted Fallon on the teen-oriented game show Silent Library.“These viewers don’t have a strong sense of rebellion, because they’re generally happy with their lives. So their comedy is more about surprise and randomness. And Jimmy’s a very hopeful guy. He doesn’t have a ‘That’s fucked’ attitude. It’s more of a ‘That’s silly’ attitude.” If other late-night shows echo the snarkier outposts of the Internet, Fallon’s smartly plugged into the Internet’s more earnest side: the part where fans flock to gab about last night’s Glee or watch videos of adorable puppies.
It took a while for the show to hit this tone. Shoemaker remembers an early struggle, in the first months, to figure out exactly how to joke about the then-ubiquitous Susan Boyle. “Everyone else was talking about how she looked or her fifteen minutes of fame,” he says. Letterman, for example, did a top-ten list of “Worst Summer Jobs,” which included “Susan Boyle’s groomer.” Jon Stewart joked that Boyle looked like Labour’s Gordon Brown in drag. “But I really liked her video,” says Fallon, and Shoemaker points out, “People were watching it in our office with tears in their eyes.” So instead, they wrote a sketch in which watching Boyle’s video could salve any affliction, including Fallon’s grumpy mood, a cancellation by Brangelina, news of an unwanted pregnancy, a zombie attack, roaches, snakes, and a bloody arm amputated by a broken copy machine. It was funny, inventive, and left Boyle unscathed. “We watched it and said, That’s it,” Shoemaker says. “That’s what our show is about.”
The comedians who inherit late-night talk shows reliably talk about it as the fulfillment of a lifelong dream: You know, how they memorized every one of Carson’s tics or finger-painted a fake audience on the wall as a toddler, then delivered a diaper-clad monologue. Fallon had only one dream as a kid in upstate New York: to be on Saturday Night Live. He landed the show in 1998, at age 23, and became a featured star. Much of his charm lay in, well, his charm: In sketches like “The Barry Gibb Talk Show,” or hosting “Weekend Update” alongside Tina Fey, he seemed less like a comedic mastermind than a really cool guy to hang out with on a Saturday night.
When his six-year contract ended in 2004, Lorne Michaels asked him, “What do you want to do next?”
Fallon’s feel-good jamboree is a modern antidote to free-form irony.
“Movies, I guess,” said Fallon.
“Well, Conan’s leaving Late Night in five years,” said Michaels. “Would you be interested in hosting a talk show?” At this point, it’s safe to say that Lorne Michaels was the only person on planet Earth who envisioned Jimmy Fallon in a late-night talk-show seat. “He’s a great natural entertainer on all fronts,” says Michaels. “But at that time, he was being recruited by the movie industry. So that was more on his mind.”
Fallon tried movies, but it didn’t go well. His first post-SNL film was the buddy comedy Taxi with Queen Latifah. When he was in Toronto filming his next movie, Fever Pitch, he got a call from the studio head at Fox. “He said, ‘Jimmy, it’s not going to open. It’s not going to be good.’ ” Fallon was crushed. He decided to disappear for the weekend, but he didn’t really know anyone in Canada, so he called Michaels, who put him in touch with Martin Short. “My friend Gary and I went up to Martin’s cabin in Muskoka”—the cottage country north of Toronto—“and we got a bottle of Jack and just got wasted.”
Unlike, say, Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell, Fallon wasn’t a natural fit to carry absurd character comedies. He seemed better suited for romantic comedies, a kind of American Hugh Grant, but male leads in romcoms are notoriously disposable. “I tried the movie thing,” says Fallon. “Then five years later, Lorne called and said, ‘So what are you thinking? Still up for that talk show?’ ”
NBC had a couple of other candidates in mind to replace Conan, but Michaels insisted he’d only produce the show with Fallon as host. So in May 2008, NBC declared that Fallon would get the job, an announcement that was met with some bewilderment, even snickers. In an early sketch about recording promos for the show’s debut, Fallon’s announcer, Steve Higgins, joked: “You loved him on SNL. You hated him in the movies. Now, you’re ambivalent.” Which pretty much summed up the mood.