Every Era Gets the 'Tonight Show' Host It Deserves

Now that it's official that Jimmy Fallon will take over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno next February, it's time to start thinking about what it all means for the entertainment powers-that-program-NBC are shifting form an old yukkity-yuk to a hip R.A. Well, if anything it shows us this generation is, for better or worse, getting the Tonight Show host it deserves. Just as the last one did.

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Now that it's official that Jimmy Fallon will take over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno next February, it's time to start thinking about what it all means for the entertainment powers-that-program-NBC are shifting form an old yukkity-yuk to a hip R.A. Well, if anything it shows us this generation is, for better or worse, getting the Tonight Show host it deserves. Just as the last one did.

Let's dispense with one idea right out: Jimmy Fallon, who is 38, isn't that young. Johnny Carson was younger than Fallon will be when he took over Tonight in 1962. Leno wasn't much older. In fact, the oldest new Tonight show host ever was Conan O'Brien! And he was already 46. Even though everyone was always going on about how Conan was so young-skewing and too edgy for all the squares, in terms of host age? He was the oldest. Sure he was but a wee babe at 30 when he started on Late Night, but by the time he got the Tonight gig, he was fourteen years older than Steve Allen was when he started the whole thing. So while Jimmy Fallon's hiring means some significant things, his age (he'll be 39 when he starts, same as Jack Paar) doesn't much mean of anything. Instead it's really about style.

If Jay Leno wasn't the ne plus ultra of '80s brick-wall comedy, he was certainly close. His was that wry observational style that, as the '80s bled into the '90s, became de rigeur on television. When Leno began hosting Tonight in 1992, it was the height of standup network deals, of shows built around guys (and a few gals) with acts. Leno, never much of an actor (not that Jerry Seinfeld was either!), bypassed that whole scene and went straight for the comedy brass ring, the dream chair. He'd frequently filled in for Carson and though he didn't have the same twinkle in his eye that Carson did, Leno could at least provide reliably easy, jovial, warmed-over laffs for folks to say goodnight to. His news-of-the-day monologues and ain't-life-silly found-item desk bits were perfectly pleasant entertainment for the pre-Internet '90s, when word spread more slowly, jokes stayed fresher for longer, and a research team combing through hundreads of newspapers was amazing.

But then the Internet did come, and Leno's style, which he seemed completely unwilling to change, quickly began to feel stale and creaky. He still had an audience, but those sought-after tastemakers and influencers — young or hip people who help shape cultural conversation — weren't paying attention. The Tonight Show became something cornier than maybe it had ever been, a husk of a show built out of lame jokes. Leno's style didn't fit the plugged-in 2000s in any way, and the show moldered. Perhaps that was Conan's time, right at the turn of the millennium. Had he sneaked in then, maybe he could have brought the show to a more modern place while still doing all the traditional Tonight Show stuff that he so vocally loved. But by the time 2009 rolled around and it was his time to steer the ship, his oddballness didn't seem so oddball anymore. Not with Tim & Eric and other Adult Swim-types running around in various comedy corners. And he'd gotten a little too self-deprecating and acerbic over his sixteen years spent in the Late Night shadows. (Same thing that happened to Letterman, maybe.) The Tonight Show has to tread a tricky line between being sharp in its humor and yet still comforting. It's a hard balance to strike, and by the time Conan was put in the lead, he just wasn't up to the task. And so he got the bum's rush and it was back to square one. We, and NBC, were once again stuck with Leno.

But there was Conan's Late Night replacement, Jimmy Fallon hovering back there at 12:30. He seemed like a risky choice even for that job, an only sorta beloved SNL player whose movie career had fizzled and hadn't been doing much of anything in recent years. But producer Lorne Michaels took a chance on him and gradually, slowly that chance began to pay off. The brilliance, if you can call it that, of Fallon's Late Night is that it immediately ran right at the contemporary world and asked it to inform the show. Sure Jimmy still does the classic newsy monologue, but he's also got Twitter jokes going, he has a laptop at his desk, he has The Roots as his house band. The whole thing feels personal and yet vaguely crowdsourced too, as if it's an entire show made up of Kickstarter rewards. And Fallon sells it. Rightfully wary of trying to compete with the in-the-know likes of Jon Stewart, Fallon has embraced absurdity just as Conan did, but his is a warmer and goofier kind. Instead of Conan's Weird we have Jimmy's Silly. It's college-y, getting guests to play beirut (beer pong, for you weirdos) and sing funny songs, but not fratty. It's not alienating in any way, really. What better host for these web 2.0, so-called "new nice" times than someone who just wants everyone to have fun and feel a part of the experience?

And now we're going to see how he can translate that aesthetic to the more venerable Tonight Show. NBC is doing a lot to accommodate him, bringing the program back to New York City after a forty-year stint in Burbank, so they're clearly invested, though I'm not exactly sure public hopes are all that high. Fallon certainly has his loyal fans, but he has plenty of committed detractors too. That's true of any entertainer of course, but Fallon's non-fans seem like a slightly more dedicated breed. Also, as Conan learned the hard way, The Tonight Show has an older, crankier, and more change-averse audience. Will sixty-year-olds who've been watching the show for forty years really be laughing at hashtag games? Well, the case may be that NBC doesn't really care about those sixty-year-olds. The network is in something of a free fall if you haven't noticed, so if it can attract a strong number of the valuable younger demo, which Fallon seems capable of doing, then maybe a Tonight Show that looks nothing like what the Boomers want it to look like is exactly what NBC wants. A complete reinvention, not Conan's halfway thing. A total overhaul that throws the show into the 21st century, Tumblr giggling and all.

It's a big job to ask of Fallon, but he's proven himself at 12:30, lasting way longer than many a betting person thought he would. And while some may want to remember The Tonight Show as something comfy and uncontroversial, familiar and unchanging, the fact is it's of course always been changing, and one day someone will likely pine for the old cozy days of Fallon and his Twitter jokes. As far as Tonight is concerned, Fallon feels like the guy for today. So what if he's a terrible interviewer? Jay wasn't much of one either.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.