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‘I wanna entertain you and make you feel good, and go to sleep with a smile on your face,’ the comedian declared in the run-up to this week’s debut of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. (Lloyd Bishop/AP)
‘I wanna entertain you and make you feel good, and go to sleep with a smile on your face,’ the comedian declared in the run-up to this week’s debut of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. (Lloyd Bishop/AP)

John Doyle

Jimmy Fallon is the nicest guy on late-night. That may be a problem Add to ...

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.

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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.

Everybody does click-bait videos now. And, in fact, Fallon opened his Tonight Show era this week with what looked like several. The hip-hop dance video with Smith. The U2 performance. And yet, probably what struck most viewers was Fallon’s sincerity. He talked about his wife and daughter. He introduced his mom and dad. He made sure everyone knew he was humbled.

In USA Today, the most mainstream of American news outlets, critic Robert Bianco wrote, “While gratitude and humility are admirable traits, there were times in Monday’s opening moments when Fallon risked taking them to uncomfortable extremes.” That’s the possible problem right there – Fallon’s a nice man, but sometimes, in comic style, a million miles from the savage mockery and wit of the Saturday Night Live spirit of which he was a part.

Last month, when Fallon and Tonight Show boss Josh Lieb met TV Critics is L.A., Lieb was asked if the young, music-savvy and social-media-smart Fallon might be too hip for The Tonight Show’s core audience. “He’s the least exclusive comedian I know,” Lieb replied. “He wants everyone to laugh with him.”

Fallon himself seemed tired at that press session, and little wonder. He’d been touring the U.S., stopping in at all those NBC affiliate stations whose local news will lead into his Tonight Show. He was introduced to critics by a member of the NBC brass with this: “Fallon will put his own stamp on the storied NBC late-night franchise with his unique comedic wit, on-point pop-culture awareness, welcoming style, and his impeccable taste in music.” The “on-point pop-culture awareness” is the on-point quote in that statement.

When Fallon was asked about any advice he’d been given, he said Leno had told him that his monologues are too short. This was true of his Late Night show and was true this week of his Tonight Show. Fallon quoted Leno: “A lot of people work all day, or they work two jobs, and they don’t get around to seeing the news. If they happen to miss the news, weirdly enough, they go to you for it. So you have to have … make jokes about what’s going on so that everyone knows.” Added Fallon: “And it really hit me, and I go, Oh, of course. I remember growing up watching Weekend Update. I got all my news from Saturday Night Live.”

Fallon hasn’t taken the advice very far. Some lame Rob Ford jokes this week, some silly stuff about NBC’s Bob Costas at the Olympics. He’s staying away from the news, really. He’s not going to savage politicians (apart from the ridiculous Ford). He’s not going to needle other media outlets. He’s too lovable for that. He’s nice. He’s not out to debunk.

Concurrently, around him on late-night TV, debunking is all the rage and there is rage in the debunking. Fallon’s the odd man out. Maybe it will make him the popular guy. Or maybe he will need to get some rage going. Viral videos are all very well. But, like Fallon, they’re usually merely cute, not cutting. We’ll see.

LATE  NIGHT ON SOCIAL MEDIA

It may only be Jimmy Fallon’s first week as host of The Tonight Show, but he’s already won one contest: His debut prompted more tweets than the finale of his predecessor, Jay Leno. Quoting data supplied by Nielsen SocialGuide, Mashable reported that 157,600 tweets about Fallon’s show were sent during his Monday-night broadcast; only 79,400 were sent during Leno’s final show on Feb. 6.

Fallon’s popularity on social media is one reason NBC tapped him for the new gig. Here’s how his numbers compare to those of other late-night TV denizens:

Number of YouTube subscribers

Jimmy Kimmel Live: 3.86 million

Late Night with Jimmy Fallon

(now The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon): 2.15 million

Conan: 1.43 million

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno: 131,000

Late Show with David Letterman: 27,880

The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson: 9,500

Twitter followers (personal accounts, unless otherwise noted)

Jimmy Fallon: 11.6 million

Conan O’Brien: 10.1 million

Stephen Colbert: 5.94 million

Jimmy Kimmel: 3.61 million

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (no personal account): 2.22 million

Craig Ferguson: 1.84 million (Late Late Show account: 20,500)

Jay Leno: 670,000

Late Show with David Letterman (no personal account): 268,000

- Simon Houpt

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