Fallon Does Right by 'Tonight'

Last night was Jimmy Fallon's first night hosting The Tonight Show, and he had his big heart and his appreciation of history on display.

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Last night was Jimmy Fallon's first night hosting The Tonight Show and he had his big heart and his appreciation of history on display. Let's not forget, this is Fallon's second chance, and he wants to do right by it. Here are two takes on his debut.

More Mr. Nice Guy

One of the problems Jimmy Fallon always had on SNL is that he always wore his emotions on his sleeves, even when playing a character. That would mean he would often break, erupting in a fit of giggles that was annoying to some and to others became a highlight of each episode.

But while Fallon's tendency to break may have been considered a deficit at SNL, it was clear from his performance last night that his earnestness is one of his greatest assets. Last night's show, as Brian Feldman wrote in our recap, wasn't really remarkable in anyway. The guests, Will Smith and U2, were boring. (Cue: what is this, the 90s?! joke.) Even the sketch—"The Evolution of Hip Hop Dancing," which Fallon performed with Smith—was a lesser version of a sketch he did on Late Night. ("Evolution of Mom Dancing" with Michelle Obama cannot be topped.)

Fallon opened the show, on the verge of tears, with some housekeeping. He introduced the members of his team—Steve Higgins, The Roots—to the new, earlier audience, all while clearly moved by the fact that he was standing up there. If Jimmy's lack of cynicism is an act, it's a damn good one, because I felt my eyes welling up. "I hope I do well," Fallon said, choking back something in his throat. When he says that you both believe him and want to pat him on the head.

"People are coming because of your heart," Will Smith said at one point during his sit down. And that's true, and it's what sets him apart. Letterman's acidity has always been his selling point, and Kimmel, a Letterman acolyte, is best known for launching viral pranks and carrying on a feud with Matt Damon. Sure, Fallon has his "feud" with Stephen Colbert, but the two of them are reluctant to let the act go as deep as it has gone with Kimmel and Damon. Yes, he poured a bunch of pennies on Fallon last night and said "Welcome to 11:30, bitch," but they also smiled and took a selfie.

"You got the clear sense that Fallon just wants everyone to play together," Entertainment Weekly's Darren Franich wrote in his review of the show. That was never more evident than when Joan Rivers came out on stage. She was part of the parade of celebrities, which included Colbert, jokingly paying up on a bet that Fallon would never host The Tonight Show. Rivers at one point was permanent guest host for Johnny Carson, but when she left to host her own show on Fox in 1986, an angry Carson never had her back again (a ban that lasted through the Leno years). Having Rivers on the show last night was Fallon's exercise in exorcising some of the the bad blood that has passed through The Tonight Show. He didn't organize a pow wow between Letterman and Leno or Conan and Leno, but at this point, we wouldn't be surprised if he had tried. —EZ

The Fallon That Almost Wasn't

No one appreciates the show business cache that comes with hosting The Tonight Show as much as Jimmy Fallon. (Except maybe David Letterman or Conan O'Brien, which, sorry guys.) Bringing out Joan Rivers is a perfect example. She's a legendary comedian, beloved by everyone, and even though The Kids who only know her from red carpet shows may not appreciate the endless kindness behind that gesture, it's there. If Fallon's heart gets him over with older audiences, his loyalty to history, to Tonight's history, will help the show get over with younger audiences. It's a symbiotic relationship: The Tonight Show keeps Fallon relevant, and Fallon keeps The Tonight Show relevant just the same. 

Because we have to remember Fallon almost flopped. For those of us young enough to remember him on Saturday Night Live, it seems like Fallon has been around forever. For those of us who spend too much time on the Internet, or stay up too damn late, Fallon is another part of our world, a familiar old face. But the rest of America, the part of the country that makes up most of The Tonight Show's viewership, may not know Fallon so well, if at all. Fallon left SNL a decade ago, and his movie career was a disaster. Or don't you remember Taxi? (You don't.) Now, Fallon is the family man sharing baby secrets with Will Smith, but also the boy from New York who made good — the one who almost didn't graduate high school — with his parents in the audience, bantering and interrupting his first Tonight Show monologue. It seemed like most of the show was spent introducing Fallon to the wider world, because he's "used to going on at, like, 12:49 a.m." As Colbert reminded him, this is 11:30, bitch.  —CS

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