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Can Jimmy Fallon Convince America He's a Worthy Successor to 'Tonight Show' Throne?

Brian Steinberg

Variety

1:30 PM EDT, August 20, 2013

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"It's like a clown car in here!" Amy Ozols declared. The producer of NBC's "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," and, next year, "The Tonight Show" pokes her head into the Fallon Band Room, a small space with a banjo and framed covers of Rolling Stone on the walls. The space looks accommodating when empty, but becomes quite snug when Jimmy Fallon, Robin Thicke and eight members of the Roots settle into it armed with toy xylophone, kazoo, cowbell, wooden block and a shaker that looks like a banana. To add to the tumult, they are joined by an assortment of makeup and tech crew members who slip through the door separating the room from the sixth-floor hallway at the 30 Rockefeller Center headquarters of NBCUniversal.

The group is taping a rendition of Thicke's hit song, "Blurred Lines" -- played entirely on instruments one might find in a kindergarten classroom -- as a "cold open" for the Aug. 1 edition of "Late Night." This sort of thing has become one of the show's signature segments. After several run-throughs without the singer in the room, Fallon and the band are getting physically warm. Spirits are high, even when the assemblage realizes the word "bitch" ought to be removed from the lyrics (Fallon will put his hand over Thicke's mouth at the right moment). The effort is offbeat, but not without charm: The scene has notched more than 8.8 million views via YouTube as of Aug. 14, a far bigger crowd than the 1.8 million that watched that episode of "Late Night."

"It feels like a party," said Ozols, days after the "Blurred Lines" segment went viral. "We don't make fun of things that we don't like. We celebrate the things we do like. That's Jimmy. That's what sets us apart."

NBC hopes that kind of esprit de corps will fuel Fallon's clown car as he drives it into new and probably rocky terrain next year.

Fallon is the designated heir to the throne of "The Tonight Show," the latenight institution that started with Steve Allen in 1954. After what is expected to be the ratings bonanza of NBC's Winter Olympics coverage in February, and after Jay Leno signs off from the program -- again -- the top-rated position in latenight will be Fallon's to lose. It's an understatement to say that the pressure is on for the new host, a veteran of "Saturday Night Live" who is nearing his 39th birthday. He's had a rocket ship of a career, having joined "SNL" in his early 20s. His move to "Late Night" in 2009 was deemed much smoother (and less scrutinized) than the transition of a then-unknown comedy writer named Conan O'Brien when he took over the post from David Letterman in 1993.

In addition to being tapped for the latenight big leagues, Fallon took a big leap in his personal life when he and his wife, producer Nancy Juvonen, became parents this month with the birth of their daughter, Winnie. Fatherhood, he said, has left him tired but very happy.

SEE ALSO: Jimmy Fallon's Greatest Hits (Videos)

Fallon's cred with the digital demo is one reason NBC is orchestrating the "Tonight" transition now, even as Leno retains his ratings advantage in the timeslot. Much has been made of the youthfulness of Fallon compared with Letterman and even Jimmy Kimmel, though it's noteworthy that Johnny Carson was actually younger than Fallon is now when he took over "Tonight" from Allen's successor, Jack Paar, in 1962.

Fallon has taken pains to avoid the snark and attitude of some of his competitors. His version of "Late Night" finds its voice in the many Internet-friendly sketches that migrate quickly online, according to Mike Shoemaker, who has supervised "Late Night" under Fallon's tenure. He cites as a prime example a silly bit called "Jersey Floor," a parody of MTV's "Jersey Shore" in which Fallon and show regulars answered the unasked question, "What if I were on that show?"

"He approaches it as a fan," Shoemaker said. That Everyman approach is sure to be part of the pitch NBC will make to auds in selling Fallon's move to "Tonight" in February.

With his grounding in sketch comedy, Fallon is a skilled impressionist who can range from President Obama to Tom Brokaw. And he can hold his own musically on stage. Some of Fallon's antics -- getting Bruce Springsteen to dress up as a 1970s version of himself; convincing President Obama to "slow jam the news"; and persuading actor Mark-Paul Gosselaar to play Zack Morris, the lead character he once played on "Saved by the Bell" -- have been viewed as significant coups.

"I haven't been diagnosed, but I'm assuming I have some type of ADD or something, where I love to just think of the next idea and do something and then do that, and do that," Fallon said.

What Fallon can't do, however, is control viewership patterns and corporate fortunes.

Latenight is a vastly different arena than it was under Johnny Carson. Once a kingdom, the daypart is now divided into fiefdoms, with competition not only from Letterman and Kimmel (whose move to 11:35 p.m. this year accelerated NBC's "Tonight" succession planning) but also Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, O'Brien and Chelsea Handler. Arsenio Hall, who made a splash late in Carson's tenure, is launching his latenight comeback effort in September.

"Latenight is a daypart that has seen significant erosion, and we are predicting comparable ratings across next year," said Jay Baum, exec veep and director of national video at ad agency Deutsch. "I don't think there is a significant expectation of big improvements at the 11:30 timeslot for NBC."

Fallon seems prepared for the inevitable speculation that comes with a move of this scope.

"There will be great ratings and then the Olympics will end and the ratings will go down and then there will be two months of 'Is he struggling? Is this not struggling?' And then we'll see how it ends," he said. "I think it's going to be fine."

And then there is the elephant-sized Peacock in the room. NBC's attempts to manage "Tonight" in the past have not played out well in public (to be fair, the network is directed by a different corporate owner these days). After Leno took over "Tonight" in 1992, David Letterman eventually lit out for CBS, splintering the audience for latenight variety shows and allowing others to stake a claim.

More recently, NBC created what is sure to be remembered as one of the biggest debacles in TV history with the 2009-2010 tango between Leno and O'Brien.

Surprisingly, even after Leno flopped with his move to a nightly 10 p.m. slot, he eventually reclaimed almost two-thirds of his "Tonight" audience when he returned to the 11:35 p.m. slot. That reversal by NBC, of course, prompted O'Brien to walk, and eventually land at TBS.

"Conan never had enough time to establish himself at 11:30," said Rick Ludwin, the longtime overseer of NBC's latenight programs, who managed "Tonight" from Carson to Leno to O'Brien and back to Leno, and who now works with the network as a consultant. "With one of these shows, you really need a year. It takes that long for everything to sort itself out, in terms of the cast, the host and what works and what doesn't work. Conan never got that year. Had we had more time, I think those adjustments would have been more natural and would have occurred."

"Tonight" may not have the ratings it once did -- aside from the Super Bowl, what does? -- but NBC cannot afford to lose the relative dominance the show enjoys over its rivals. These days, latenight is the only daypart in which NBC has a clear, longstanding edge over the competition. With Fallon and Leno faring quite well in their respective timeslots, many observers have asked why NBC is intent on fixing something that ain't broke.

"We want to do this when Jay is still No. 1," said Ted Harbert, chairman of NBC Broadcasting. "We feel this is the right time, and we obviously want to take advantage of the Winter Olympics as a promotional base." Making the move under other circumstances can be dangerous, according to Ludwin.

"You don't want to have it slip to No. 2 or, God forbid, a No. 3 position. It might take you 10 years to dig yourself out of that hole," he said.

Can NBC give Fallon time to find his footing? "Jimmy is our guy, and he's going to be our guy for a long time," Harbert said. "It's not just about where we expect the ratings to settle out."

One reason Fallon is good at his job? He really likes to talk.

He's happy to tell you about the recent salsa-making accident that led him to slice open his finger. When he knew he was about to land President Obama on "Late Night," he called Howard Stern, Barbara Walters and Leno to glean interviewing techniques.

At "SNL," he used to hang outside the show's Studio 8H and chat incessantly with cast, crew, tourists -- whomever, Ludwin remembered. He takes pains to talk about his show's current Emmy nom, calling attention to writers, segment producers and wardrobe crew. When chatter surfaced earlier this year that NBC was once again considering a change in latenight, Fallon said he reached out to Leno personally and said, "Let's just talk and always talk -- to each other. I don't want to talk through agents and people. I'd rather talk to you face to face." His gift of gab is a big factor in getting people like Paul McCartney and Springsteen to take part in offbeat sketches.

Fallon recalls talking to the Boss to secure him for a duet in which Fallon plays Neil Young singing the Willow Smith dance hit "Whip My Hair." Initially, Springsteen was dubious, Fallon recounted, slipping into impressions of the rocker, along with "Harvest"-era Neil Young, Smith and a nervous version of himself: "I'm not familiar with that song," Fallon said in Springsteen's voice. "Yeah, yeah, I do not know that." Yet after Fallon finished the pitch, Springsteen called back, offering to wear a fake beard and a floppy hat from an earlier era of his wardrobe.

Securing Obama required even more work; the crew had to travel to the U. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to meet the president and set up a show in secret. The project was code-named "Bieber." "I feel like now it's getting a bit easier to ask people for stuff, because they see how much work we put into it," Fallon said.

And while he's throwing out idea after idea to stock "Late Night" with content, he has clearly been giving consideration to his next job and the competition he will face.

"I think the Kimmel thing sparked a lot of stuff," Fallon acknowledged. "So, it was like, what is NBC going to do? Should they have made the move earlier, and just moved me down earlier when Kimmel started? There's probably an argument to be made for that -- a good argument for that. Because now Kimmel's got a couple of laps on me, and I'll have some catch-up time. But I'll do it."

Lorne Michaels bills Fallon's ascension as a return to the days of Johnny Carson, whose shadow still looms large over latenight. Fallon's office features a massive picture of Carson bathed in a spotlight.

"I think (Fallon) has something that's been missing in latenight for a while, which is, he is a host. He is not out to prove he's smarter than the guest," said Michaels, the "Saturday Night Live" creator who will add oversight of "Tonight" to his NBC portfolio (he also exec produces "Late Night," which Seth Meyers will take over).

As good as Fallon is at talking, he never saw himself as a talkshow host until Michaels broached the idea. His dream, he recalled, was to appear on "Saturday Night Live." When he decided to leave the show after six years, Michaels wanted him to consider a yakker, as O'Brien had already been tapped as Leno's successor.

But Fallon's focus was on the bigscreen, appearing in some indie films as well as a supporting role in "Almost Famous" and lead slots in 2005 romantic comedy "Fever Pitch" and the 2004 action-comedy "Taxi." When Fallon's box office appeal dimmed, Michaels pushed him again on the talkshow option.

NBC had Fallon under a talent deal with the express purpose of having him locked in for the moment that Conan O'Brien moved to "Tonight." Without Michaels' backing, however, Fallon said he would not have gotten the job. NBC was slow to embrace him fully, he recalled. Indeed, then-NBC Entertainment chief Ben Silverman had other candidates in mind, according to Michaels. Finally, Michaels made an all-or-nothing proclamation: If Fallon wasn't their choice, the producer had no interest in taking part in the next version of "Late Night." Michaels said he arranged for Fallon to meet then-NBCU chief Jeff Zucker, who saw Fallon's potential.

In preparing for the big move to an earlier hour, Fallon said he is working up to a longer monologue, hoping to get to around seven or eight minutes (from the three to five now) and using videos as well as jokes. By his estimates, Leno does around seven minutes' worth of material, with most contemporaries doing six to nine.

Fallon also thinks certain "Late Night" antics may have to go -- mostly the "sophomoric" stuff. He cited the show's "Models and Buckets" sketch in which attractive female models dump buckets of Pepto-Bismol, ice cream and cherry syrup on members of the studio audience.

"We're still going to be silly and absurd," Fallon assured. "You can't get that out of my brain. But there are some things that are better for 12:30."

More likely to make the move is a segment in which Fallon plays games with his celebrity guests ranging from Pictionary to "Egg Russian Roulette " (played with a mix of raw and hardboiled). Fallon thinks the segment may have inspired NBC's "Hollywood Game Night."

Bringing a post-midnight program into an earlier spot poses an "enormous challenge," Michaels said. "When you're at 12:30, you're doing lots of features, you know, and constantly proving how bright and innovative you are." At 11:30, he said, the relationship between the host and the viewers is paramount: "You like the guy or you don't."

To that end, Michaels wants to give Fallon more room to be himself , calling the "Tonight Show" heir "great in spontaneous moments." Indeed, Fallon taped a segment in which he simply sat and told a story about paying for bottle service at a club during his "Saturday Night Live" days with Derek Jeter, the lead guest for the Aug. 8 broadcast. Fallon was stunned by the price, and admitted he almost began to cry. While simple, the moment was ultimately more winning and emotionally open than some of the usual stuff.

"You want to allow that to be seen, as opposed to going from one bit to another bit," Michaels said.

Another aspect of tailoring the show around Fallon is the decision, which came at his behest, to move "Tonight" back to Gotham for the first time since Carson headed West in 1972.

"I'm from here," Fallon said. "I was born and raised here." Plus, doing the show from New York offers the chance to showcase guests from sports, business and fashion realms, beyond the usual Hollywood celebs, Fallon noted.

For all the scrutiny accorded latenight television, the audience base is much smaller than in primetime and increasingly enabled by time-shifted viewing -- meaning that most latenight shows are not really latenight viewing any more for many viewers. So fleeting is the audience -- the later the hour gets, the more of them turn in for sleep -- that many of the shows, including "Tonight," "The Late Show" and others, rearranged their structure in 2007, shoving more commercials into the first 30 minutes.

Fallon's ascension to the "Tonight" throne won't keep audiences from splintering, or checking out whoever else cable might serve up in his time period. He can't prevent NBC from fretting over its franchise. But he can keep asking rock stars to participate in skits. He can keep making videos that get picked up by the digital masses. One day, those vignettes may even bring serious money to the network. And he can keep, well, putting fuel in the clown car.

If Fallon is feeling the pressure of the "Tonight" handoff with just six months to go, he's not showing it.

"We wouldn't be this far if it wasn't going to happen," Fallon said. " There are too many good people working. It's real, it's going to happen and we'll be here for a while."


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