The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon – Does Anyone Really Care?

The Tonight Show Jimmy Fallon Jay Leno
This is such an incredibly hokey publicity photo

With the way NBC has been promoting Jimmy Fallon’s first week hosting of The Tonight Show you would think this was something very special. Another exciting chapter to one of the longest and most popular franchises in television history has begun. A rejuvenated beginning with a younger edge and promises of some memorable comedic moments in years to come.

So why don’t I care about any of it?

I’ve talked about late night television before and my feeling has always been that once Johnny Carson left the Tonight Show, he took ‘The Tonight Show’ with him.

Oh sure there was still a Tonight Show that came on every week night, but it was in name only. The special classiness that had been associated with the Tonight Show ebbed away and it became just another late night talk show. NBC’s flagship talk show had become another member of the growing number of countless talk shows on the dial offering similar entertainment and the same exact format.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson

For those old enough to remember, when Carson finally left the Tonight Show it was a huge deal. Here was a guy that worked the show for thirty years. He was one of the biggest stars around, was the highest paid television performer ever and everyone on the planet knew who he was. Everyone liked him and watched him. If you were awake at 11:30 at night and were watching television the odds were you were watching Carson delivering his monologue.

Not only was he funny, but there simply wasn’t anything else to watch. By the 1980’s cable television was just popping up in people’s homes. Other television networks seemed to be content with airing a late night movie or test patterns. VCR’s were still luxury.

So odds were if you were turning on the tube Carson would entertain you before your head hit the pillow. For those wanting more talk show laughs you could stay up even later and watch David Letterman after Carson said good night.

Things eventually began to get competitive in the late night wars when other talk shows tried to steal some of Carson’s thunder. Alan Thicke, Pat Sajak, Joan Rivers (Dick Cavett always seemed to be around talking with guests at some point during the day) all gave their best to cut themselves a healthy slice of the late night audience and all failed.

Arsenio Hall came the closest to succeeding. With Carson nearing the end of his reign in the early 90’s it it was up in the air whether Letterman – who looked like the natural candidate to inherit Johnny’s throne – would maintain the popularity of the Tonight Show. I always liked Letterman and grew up watching him on Late Night. I even got to score tickets to Late Night back when he was hosting it. I still like him although admittedly I haven’t tuned into his Late Show in ages.

The Late Shift Leno Letterman
The Late Shift – the dramatization of the story

As we all know Jay Leno got the Tonight Show seat, Letterman left for CBS and it created a whirlwind of juicy behind-the-scenes stories and bad blood that would keep audiences captivated. That early drama would yield much more entertainment than Leno’s actual hosting duties.

Once upon a time he was one of the best, most cutting edge comics. The most mainstream thing he did was Doritos commercials. Once he became the Tonight Show host he played things safe, was inoffensive and his interviewing skills consisted of reading off a card. Simply put I thought he was unwatchable.

But NBC loved him. Affiliates loved him. Middle America loved him. I have no idea why, but he quickly became NBC’s golden boy. And The Tonight Show became so blandly vanilla I never tuned in again.

Now I wish I watched Leno’s final week to see all the highlights from years past they featured. Other than his Hugh Grant interview, did Leno ever have an interview that was worth watching again? Was there ever any bit or joke that warranted inclusion in a highlight reel? Is anyone really that broken up that they’ll never see Leno’s Tonight Show again?

Leno seemed to become more and more unpopular with his fellow comics as his tenure wore on. There was actual disdain for him and insults thrown at him. I always found that funny. Here was a guy who was trying so hard to be liked by everyone and many of his contemporaries viewed him as a sellout.

Leno at 10:00 – Ouch

Things got even better when in 2009 Conan O’Brien took over The Tonight Show and wanting to keep Leno around NBC gave him an hour-long talk show of his own in primetime. The results were hilariously disastrous. It would become one of the most famous debacles in television history.

In the end Conan got the boot, Leno was given back The Tonight Show and even more people viewed Leno as not as likable a guy as he tried to sell himself to be. When all that Conan/Leno/Tonight Show drama was going down I remember thinking the one who’s going to make out best from all of this is Fallon who by now was hosting Late Night and stepped to the front of the line for that 11:30 slot.

Sure enough now in 2014 we have Fallon taking over the esteemed Tonight Show. Honestly, I still don’t know how he ever ended up ever hosting Late Night.

I guess Lorne Michaels helped make that happen. Didn’t he just use to be in charge of Saturday nights on NBC? Now it seems he’s involved with the whole week of late night programming. He helped Conan get a hosting job, Fallon and now Seth Myers is jumping into this. Back in the day it used to be you do SNL for awhile then go and try to get a movie career rolling, now it’s become a jumping off point to host your own talk show.

I think it’s funny how the network still tries to sell the facade that The Tonight Show is the Queen Mary of talk shows. I suppose it is. It must generate more money than any other talk show, but in my mind it has long since been tarnished with all that messing around with it after Carson split. And nothing Leno did while he was there made the show any more entertaining to watch! Seventeen years of eye-rolling monologues, silly bits and Leno asking actors stodgy questions in between them promoting their latest project.

Plus, the uniqueness of a talk show at 11:30 is long gone today. With DVR’s does it even matter what time a show comes on anymore? If you want to watch something you will regardless of the time it airs.

Then with the thousands of channels and options for entertainment we have today makes it for me to justify watching yet another talk show. There has to be something really special about it to warrant the attention. Just because it’s called ‘The Tonight Show’ is meaningless to me.

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
Fallon’s first night as the new Tonight Show host

I’ve never watched Fallon so I don’t know what kind of host he is. I think the only thing I’ve seen him in is Fever Pitch. I guess his movie career is done now. But I think even if he didn’t get into the hosting game after that Taxi movie he did with Queen Latifah he wasn’t going too far starring in movies anyway.

So Fallon now has it somewhat easy. All he has to do is make a more exciting and funny show than Leno did and really how hard can that be?

I guess people like him. NBC must have high hopes for him since now they’re calling it ‘The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’. Leno only got a ‘with Jay Leno’ when he was hosting. Is that meant to tell us anything?

Fallon is supposedly meant to attract a younger audience and do more stuff that they anticipate to go viral in this new digital age of The Tonight Show and rack up views online. I’ve never seen any of his stuff from his time on Late Night. I simply have no interest.

I have asked younger people – the ones that are really his target audience – what they think of Fallon. Are they going to be torn now between watching Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel? Not one of them cared about any of this talk show stuff. Neither do I.

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1 Response

  1. John Jamele says:

    I actually think that these "late-night" shows are passe in the age of 200 channels and cable "news" which is little more than nonstop political commentary. I remember watching Carson and Letterman in the late-80s early-90s (heck, I can vaguely remember Letterman's DAYTIME show) and the fuss when Leno (who I have never found even remotely funny, not even once) took over. My guess is that I'll never watch Fallon- not because I have anything against him, but because I'm asleep by the time he comes on (I work for a living, after all.)

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