Jimmy Fallon takes over 'Tonight Show'

With moments of real, almost awkward sincerity and a parade of celebrity walk-ons, former sketch comic Jimmy Fallon took over Monday night as the sixth -- or seventh, depending on how you count it -- host of NBC's "The Tonight Show."

Welcoming guests Will Smith and U2 -- and starting 30 minutes later than his usual time because of the network's Winter Olympics coverage -- Fallon carefully introduced himself to a theoretically new audience, thanking his parents, who were in the audience, and the hosts who had come before him:

"Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno," Fallon said.

Even before that, his first actual joke, too, had referred to NBC's first try at finding a successor to Leno, 2009-10's short-lived O'Brien tenure.

"I'm Jimmy Fallon, and I'll be your host -- for now," said the upstate New York native, a former "Saturday Night Live" Weekend Update anchor who took over NBC's "Late Night" from O'Brien and hosted it for almost five years.

If he didn't exactly come roaring out of the gate, Fallon did demonstrate the mixture of old-world courteousness, junior-high-school goofiness and seemingly unending enthusiasm that has charmed audiences, network bosses and fellow stars.

And when he restarted the show, coming out again to do the monologue, all about the Olympics, it felt a lot more like what Fallon's "Tonight" will be.

His best line related to the thrilling U.S.-Russia men's hockey game: "The American team said that they were thrilled with the win, while the Russian team is missing."

It felt even more like Fallon's "Tonight" when he told "my buddy who said, 'You'd never be the host of 'The Tonight Show'" that he owed the host $100, and a dozen or so stars, from Tina Fey to Kim Kardashian to Stephen Colbert, walked out and paid off the bet.

And having house band The Roots and announcer Steve Higgins move over from "Late Night" helped set a familiar tone, too.

In the same night, "The Tonight Show" returned to New York City, where it originated 60 years ago, and was turned over to a new generation.

Fallon, 39, takes over from the 63-year-old Leno and ushers one of television's legendary franchises into the era of social media and bits that have to be able to compete the next day for the attention on the Internet.

It's no surprise that there was an early, taped comedy segment, with Fallon and Smith performing "The Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing," which took viewers, amusingly, through M.C. Hammer and up to the twerk. Look for it in your in-box in the morning.

His show put its guest band, too, into a couple of new settings. First, U2 played their new single, "Invisible," on the roof of NBC's 30 Rockefeller Center building, a stunning city setting that almost made you overlook the blandness of the song, and then they played another tune while seated on the couch.

The couch, by the way, is lovely, part of a new set that emphasizes stained wood and a mid-century modern style. Did Fallon need to thank the set designer on air? Probably not.

But, again, it's part of that courteousness that has him embracing late night traditions. On a promotional visit last fall to Chicago, he said he wants to honor the legacy of inaugural host Steve Allen.

It's a different outlook from the sarcastic approach of David Letterman, now ensconced in the CBS late-night chair. Starting the "Late Night" show in the 1980s, Letterman made his mark by seeming to treat the very idea of hosting a talk show with skepticism.

Fallon could very well have a hard time maintaining Leno's ratings lead. It's hard to imagine core "Tonight" viewers, older than Fallon's, sticking with his signature bits.

But the advantage he has is a real gift for mimicry, especially of musicians, and a keen eye for the buzz-worthy. Just weeks ago, Fallon and Bruce Springsteen sang a "Born to Run" parody making fun of New Jersey's bridge-closing scandal.

On the other hand, as he showed again Monday, the "Tonight" staples of delivering traditional monologue jokes and, especially, conducting celebrity interviews rank much lower in the Fallon skill set.

He seems likely to land big stars regardless. Fallon's first week of guest bookings, though, is a demonstration of the star power and, more particularly, the likability he has established.

First Lady Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, Kristen Wiig, Bradley Cooper and Justin Timberlake are among his scheduled visitors.

Mrs. Obama, of course, starred in the "Late Night" bit on the evolution of mom dancing, as funny for who was performing it as for the dances themselves. Presidential historians confirm it is the first time a current First Lady performed a nationally televised dance parody.

And Timberlake has been Fallon's No. 1 running buddy; they have become almost as inseparable as Justin Bieber and scandal.

It was surely only Timberlake's concert Monday at the United Center in Chicago that kept him from being an inaugural guest. Instead, he'll close the first week, Friday night, between tour dates in New York City and Buffalo.

Fallon taking over "Tonight" also marks NBC's complete submission to producer Lorne Michaels, who has parlayed control of "Saturday Night Live" and close relationships with its stars into a guiding hand over "SNL," "Tonight" and, beginning next Monday, Fallon's successor show, "Late Night with Seth Meyers."

 

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