“I went in thinking, They’ll just kill me,” says Fallon. “Conan got trashed for years. But when I looked at a couple of reviews, most of the criticism was pretty fair. I mean, I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s not like I had an old talk show in England or Canada. I’ve never done this. I’ve got to figure it out.”
Nearly two years later, Michaels still watches every taping and weighs in on small details from set-dressing to individual monologue jokes. “I used to come out at the beginning and jump around and clap, really psyching everyone up,” says Fallon. “Lorne told me, ‘Too much. Just come out and stand there, plant, be confident, and deliver the joke. You command more authority when you make the audience come to you.’ ” In other words, act like you belong. Eventually the audience will agree.
Flash-forward to November 2010, and the late-night name on everyone’s lips is—well, it’s Conan O’Brien, obviously, whose much-wondered-about TBS show, Conan, debuts on November 8. Conan is likely to return bearded and possibly embittered. Reviews of his live tour this past summer often noted, with some dissatisfaction, how his post-NBC bile threatened to choke his rangy comedy. And there’s something about Conan’s wired energy that crackles most when he’s backed against a wall—or, in this case, a monologuist’s curtain.
Then, of course, all eyes turn to Leno. Will he joke about Conan? Congratulate him? Ignore him? And what about Letterman? Or the feisty Jimmy Kimmel? Will he don the fake Leno chin again? Or simply take a few fresh jabs at the real one?
Meanwhile, Jimmy Fallon has been busy stuffing a six-foot hero sandwich down his pants. This wasn’t a sketch for his show but a stunt on Silent Library. That show, which is set in a fake library, is premised on a series of messy challenges, all with one catch: You can’t make any noise. Especially not laughter. Which makes Fallon either the best or worst contestant imaginable. Naturally, in most of the challenges, Fallon laughs so hard he can barely stand up.
During all of last year’s tumult, Fallon had, in many ways, the most treacherous path to tread: He follows Leno, he works for NBC, yet he grew up watching Conan, whose show debuted when Fallon was a college freshman. When NBC considered pushing its late-night slate back a half-hour, to squeeze in a Leno show at 11:35, Fallon was happy to oblige a move to 1:05 a.m. Some commentators saw this as a lack of solidarity with Team Coco. But Fallon, the most tech-savvy of the late-night hosts, makes a different point. “Time slot doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care about it at all. I TiVo everything. If people want to see you, they’ll find you. If they don’t see you on TV, they’ll find you on the Internet.” Increasingly, they are finding him: He handily beats CBS’s Late Late Show at the same hour, and he’s now drawing as many 18-to-49-year-olds as The Tonight Show. And his overall audience can nearly double on the web, as happened with the “History of Rap” clip.
So it occurred to me, rather jarringly, that, should Leno (who’s 60 this year) hold on to his Tonight Show chair for another decade, at that point Fallon will be 46, with ten years of Late Night under his belt. He’ll have cemented his position with the young viewers Jay is currently losing. Which is to say—are you ready for this?—Jimmy Fallon is the logical and likely heir to the Tonight Show chair.
I mention this to him. He demurs, of course. “If it happens at the right time, it happens; I’m happy where I am.” Et cetera. But think about it: The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.
After his taping, still flushed yet exhausted, Fallon recalls the story of a personal turning point, during a rehearsal on SNL. “I was in a bear suit, trying to do comedy. I was thinking, This is lame, this is a waste, they can’t even see my face. Then I looked over at Will Ferrell and he had metal clamps on his nipples and he was getting water thrown on him. And he was just doing it, no complaints. For me, that was a clicking moment. That this could all be a lot easier if you just go with it.” He jacks his eyebrows slightly and smiles. “It’s not: I’ve got to wear a bear suit. It’s: I get to wear a bear suit.”