Late night TV is the land of snark and satire, of bite and bitterness.
Jimmy Fallon is nice. That’s a problem. Possibly it will end up being his saving grace. Possibly it will be his downfall.
The first week of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon had a lot of big-name guests. In the talk-show world, some were gargantuan. His first outing, on Monday, included the likes of Will Smith, with whom Fallon presented a history of hip-hop dance. It had U2, who performed their new single, Invisible, on the roof of the Rockefeller Center. Those big stars’ glowing presence handily masked Fallon’s nerves and dorkiness. It took a few days to really get the picture.
As the week unfolded, Fallon emerged as nice. Ultra nice. He gushed over everyone. “I love this guy so much,” he said, introducing Bradley Cooper on Wednesday, for a forgettable chat. Almost simultaneously, competitor Jimmy Kimmel was having great sport with Matthew McConaughey on the subject of HBO’s seedy, white-hot new crime series, True Detective.
Thursday promised much, with Michelle Obama, Will Ferrell and Arcade Fire in the lineup. But it was an excruciating hour.
Obama, Fallon and Ferrell – the men in drag as teenage girls – delivered what was basically a Saturday Night Live sketch gone wrong. Way too long and overripe. Of course, Fallon supergushed over Obama when he actually sat down to interview her, but it was too clear she was controlling the chat. The conversation with Ferrell led nowhere, certainly not toward hilarity.
Don’t get me wrong: Throughout the week, Fallon was always adorable. It’s what he does best. That and gushing.
Far be it from anyone to pour a bucket of cold water on the NBC publicity machine and its unfettered optimism about the new Tonight Show. But if the first week, and Fallon’s existing late-night career, are any indication, the man’s in for a hard slog. An uphill grind of pushing out a cheery variety show, nightly, while all round him, viewers are lapping up the snark.
“I wanna entertain you and make you feel good, and go to sleep with a smile on your face,” Fallon declared in one of the countless promotional interviews he did for NBC stations. It’s a noble intention and it’s what The Tonight Show has been mandated to do since it was launched, with Steve Allen at the helm, six decades ago. Fair enough.
But everything has changed since Johnny Carson, who started his 30-year run as host in 1962, ruled the airwaves as the “king of late-night.” Things have shifted even since CBS did its best to crown David Letterman “king of late-night” for that period in the nineties when he triumphed in the ratings over Jay Leno.
These days, there is no king in late night. That’s because there is no kingdom. The landscape has shifted.
Look at what Fallon faces. There’s the craggy, irascible Letterman, long since matured from hosting stupid pet tricks to delivering jokes with a calculated viciousness. He’s a man energized in particular by battles with politicians, a guy who looks with withering scorn on the music business that Fallon worships.
There’s Jimmy Kimmel, still doing his cool, bachelor-guy thing, a bit louche, a bit screw-you. He can be mean-spirited, even sadistic, and at times seems to hate anything that smacks of grown-up responsibility.
And then there are the fake-news programs. The Daily Show is required viewing for the most desirable audience of all: the middle-class, politically aware, well-off demographic that otherwise watches hardly any TV at all. It gets less than half as many viewers as The Tonight Show (which generally averages 3 million people watching live). But they are far more upscale – and harder to reach for advertisers. Seamlessly, after The Daily Show comes the most important political comedian in America, Stephen Colbert, mocking all media with relish. And he gets that same desirable demographic.
What all these competitors share is what Letterman essentially launched decades ago. The ubiquitous culture of irony, sometimes bitter irony. The irresistible puncturing of pomposity. The truth-telling and mockery. The snark. A lot of people want to go bed with the smile created by mockery on their faces – not the sweet smile Fallon puts there. The entrenched, desirable audience for late-night is young, hip and disaffected.
Fallon, 39, was NBC’s No. 1 choice to replace the 63-year-old Leno not because the older guy was failing, but because he wasn’t getting young viewers. Hardly anything Leno did went viral. That meant a lucrative revenue stream was left untapped – those views on the computers and mobile devices of twentysomethings, that could be accompanied by premium-cost ads.
What NBC wants most from Fallon is not No. 1 TV ratings, but that ceaseless buzz about his hijinks on The Tonight Show. In his Late Night with Jimmy Fallon career, airing after Leno, and playing to a loyal college-age audience, he produced dozens of spoofs, dance routines and music bits (some with his good pal Justin Timberlake) that were, in the vernacular of today’s TV racket, click bait: You had to click on the link to know what your friends were talking about.