On Monday night at 11:35pm on NBC, Jimmy Fallon will reverse the long-held truism that you have to sell out to get ahead.
Five years ago, Jimmy Fallon took over for Conan O’Brien as host of Late Night. O’Brien went on to host The Tonight Show for nine months, until a complicated and unfortunate series of circumstances forced him to abandon his post, collect a tidy sum of money and hightail it to TBS, where his show has hummed along at a consistently acceptable ratings pace.
Meanwhile, Fallon kept his mouth shut. He claimed he was just happy to be where he was. He did what Leno never did – he messed around. He showcased his musical talents and invited his celebrity guests to share in his passion for silliness. He experimented with big-budget parodies of popular TV shows. He cracked an egg on Tom Cruise’s head. He rapped the hits with Justin Timberlake once, then twice, then twice more. He slow-jammed the news with Brian Williams, Gov. Chris Christie, Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. He incorporated social media more deftly than any late-night host before or since. And he had a lot of fun.
He enjoyed it, and so did we. His comedy is never mean-spirited or excessively snarky. During the Leno-O’Brien debacle, he zipped his lips, repeatedly assuring anyone who asked that he was happy exactly where he was, thank you very much. In fact, he’s just happy to be alive, and he wants you to feel the same. And his hard work has paid off with the Tonight Show mantle. He’ll inherit the coveted title on Monday night, when he’ll welcome Will Smith and U2 as his first guests.
But first came the task of saying goodbye to Late Night, where he transformed from SNL also-ran to television’s most joyful musical comic. Fallon’s last episode of Late Night was light on gimmicks and lighter on surprises – no Justin Timberlake cameo, no elaborate climax. He opened with an earnest rendition of “On a Night Like This” with special guest Buckwheat Zydeco. He emerged teary-eyed for his monologue, which mostly consisted of thanks and remembrances. He offered a few Thank You Notes and goofed around with Andy Samberg. All in good fun, as Fallon does best.
Then he sat down with his announcer and longtime friend Steve Higgins, who told him that he’s “perfect” for Tonight and that he can’t imagine doing it with anyone else. Once again, this moment served as a reminder that late-night television, for all of the money and the corruption and the ratings grabs and the competition, showcases some of the hardest-working people in showbusiness. After working with him on 969 full shows, Higgins is qualified to compliment Fallon like that. Too often, we take for granted the work that goes into making the late-night clock tick. Fallon’s best skill is making it look effortless and, more important, fun.
The night ended on a quiet note, as Fallon took the stage with the Muppets to perform The Band’s “The Weight.” Of course he did. There was no punchline, no grand statement, not even an audible goodbye. Fallon finished the performance, strolled down the hallway and opened the door to his new office, the Tonight Show studio. A horde of excited friends and crew members greeted him as he stepped in. Roll credits. Perfect. We’ll see him again soon.