Stephen Colbert grabs a selfie during his visit to 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.' (Theo Wargo / Getty Images)
Jimmy Fallon didn’t just barge into everyone’s homes on Monday night when he took over hosting duties at “The Tonight Show.” He politely rang the doorbell, took off his shoes at the doorstep and warmed you up a cup of hot cocoa while you settled in for the show.
Fallon’s “Tonight Show” debut kicked off a new era of late-night television. His is the biggest piece in late-night’s shifting puzzle, which will be solidified next week when his “Saturday Night Live” pal Seth Meyers takes over Fallon’s old position at “Late Night.”
In a crowded field marked by diminished expectations — at Johnny Carson’s peak, “The Tonight Show” averaged 15 million viewers a night, a far cry from today’s numbers — Fallon has the potential to put his own stamp on the show and make it a fun, inviting place to hang out before going to bed. Late-night’s most storied franchise is in good hands with the 39-year-old Fallon; he is an excitable, genuine and eager-to-please personality, and “The Tonight Show” will benefit from his warmth and his broad appeal.
Trumping Conan's debut
Fallon’s show got off to a strong start, ratings-wise, scoring 11.3 million viewers, which was up 71 percent from the final episode of “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” earlier this month, according to Nielsen figures. And he did significantly better than Conan O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” debut in 2009, which pulled in 9.17 million viewers.
Predictably, Fallon’s viewership was down 23 percent from Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” farewell on Feb. 6. In Fallon’s defense, it is an odd choice for NBC to launch his “Tonight Show” in the middle of the Sochi Olympics, and why the network kicked off his “Tonight Show” at midnight when “Tonight” has aired at 11:30 p.m. since the 1950s is anyone’s guess. What, they couldn’t wait a week until things get back to normal?
Reviews of Fallon’s first night as “Tonight Show” host pointed out his clunky interview style — which basically boils down to him telling guests they’re great — but highlighted his ability to make everyone feel like a welcome party guest.
The Los Angeles Times’ Mary McNamara called Fallon’s debut “conspicuously, and seemingly consciously, low-energy,” but pointed out his strengths that will make his show stand out. “He is the most musically inclined host since Steve Allen, with a pop-culture sensibility — he referenced both ‘Masters of the Universe’ and ‘Dune’ in a description of an aerial view of Dubai — to match his easy-going ways.
“He is playful, he is joyful and he is an astute user of social media, all of which one hopes he brings to the beloved but undeniably aging franchise.”
And Rolling Stone’s Sarene Leeds said Fallon’s “Tonight Show” was “just a brighter, shinier and bigger version of ‘Late Night,’ but the transition is already way more seamless than the host’s early days on ‘Late Night.’ ”
Real test yet to come
Fallon has come a long way since his sketch-flubbing days on “Saturday Night Live,” and even since his “Late Night” debut. That was a famous flop, with a stiff Robert DeNiro refusing to make things easy for him and oddball audience bits that didn’t yet make sense. (DeNiro, for his part, made up for it on Monday, leading a parade of special guests — including: Tina Fey, Lady Gaga, Rudy Giuliani, Mariah Carey, Joe Namath, Tracy Morgan, Kim Kardashian, Joan Rivers, Lindsay Lohan, Mike Tyson, Stephen Colbert, Seth Rogen and Sarah Jessica Parker — who dropped by, one after another, to wish him well.)
But these things take time, and Fallon’s “Late Night” wound up an extraordinarily fun show, making better use of its guests — pitting them against Fallon in games or putting them in sketches or taped bits designed to go viral — than any other show on the late-night dial. Fallon’s “Tonight Show” should follow suit.
With so many choices both on the networks and on cable, the late-night television landscape also has come a long way since the days of Johnny Carson, or even since the days that Leno and Letterman went head-to-head every night.
The ratings dust will settle and Fallon’s real test will come in the weeks and months to come, when he goes head to head with Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel. Letterman routinely draws around 3 million viewers, while Kimmel gets around 2.5 million. (Conan O’Brien — remember him? — regularly pulls less than 1 million on his TBS show.)
But Fallon stands out in the late-night landscape. Let Letterman be the cranky uncle and Kimmel be the snarky cousin of the late-night family. O’Brien is so far off the radar he’s the half-brother you only see at reunions. Fallon, however, is the brother who greets you with a big hug, who lights up the room with his affability and makes everyone feel comfortable.
One thing is for sure: A new era is upon us, and where it’s headed is anyone’s guess. Hopefully Fallon brought enough cocoa for everybody.
Critics weigh in
Excerpts from several reviews of Jimmy Fallon’s premiere episode:
■“Time-slot rival Jimmy Kimmel is the inheritor of the Letterman tradition: Too cool for school. Fallon is the guy who thinks school is pretty cool.”
— Darren Franich, Entertainment Weekly
■“The debut of ‘The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon’ was conspicuously, and seemingly consciously, low-energy. ... (Fallon) is the most musically inclined host since Steve Allen, with a pop-culture sensibility — he referenced both ‘Masters of the Universe’ and ‘Dune’ in a description of an aerial view of Dubai — to match his easy-going ways. He is playful, he is joyful and he is an astute user of social media, all of which one hopes he brings to the beloved but undeniably aging franchise.”
— Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times
■“Fallon’s ‘Tonight Show’ is just a brighter, shinier and bigger version of ‘Late Night,’ but the transition is already way more seamless than the host’s early days on ‘Late Night.’ ”
— Sarene Leeds, Rolling Stone
■“It was very earnest, and deliberately endearing, and mostly I was charmed. But I’m already yearning for the aw-shucksiness to wear off. It’s part of Fallon's appeal, I know, and I genuinely am a fan of him and the joy he brings to the often-curmudgeonly late-night landscape. His whole opening — heartfelt as it seemed to be! — was based on this ‘can you believe it????’ attitude. Except yeah, I can believe it. Fallon’s been on TV since 1998 and has hosted his own late-night show since 2009. If not him, who?”
— Margaret Lyons, vulture.com
■“One show down, thousands to go, and we’re off to a good start. Fallon’s ‘Tonight Show’ is bound to be a welcoming place and a unifier on a fractured TV dial. Fallon is proof that not all nice guys finish last. Sometimes, they finish first.”
— Adam Graham, The Detroit News