Mr. Sunshine

Photo: Andrew Eccles. Styling by Bifen Xu; Hair by Courtney Benedetti; Makeup by Cyndie Lou Boehm; Set Design by Wade & Strauss. Emporio Armani Jacket, Shirt, Ralph Lauren Tie

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.

Photo: Andrew Eccles. Styling by Bifen Xu; Hair by Courtney Benedetti; Makeup by Cyndie Lou Boehm; Set Design by Wade & Strauss. Tom Ford Shirt & Ralph Lauren Tie

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.

“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.”

Mr. Sunshine