In a new post on The AV Club, Steven Hyden makes the case that Jimmy Fallon has become the best host in late night, and I agree with much of what he says. Fallon’s rise is a classic example of not judging a show based on its first few episodes (or even months), but giving it time to grow and find what it does well. Compare the third and fourth seasons of “Seinfeld” or “Friends” with episodes from their debut season and you’ll see what I mean — they had to find their groove.
Fallon has certainly done that, and in some ways reminds me of a morning radio host. Even the best in the business had those early years where they struggled, trying to do too much, telling lame jokes, forcing banter with their co-workers, and airing bits that didn’t work because they were better than nothing. After a while, the good hosts learned through trial and error not only what they were comfortable with and what had to be jettisoned, but more importantly, how to relax and have fun on the air.
That’s where Fallon is now. Watch his show any night and — aside from the monologue, a vestige of every previous late night show, which he should drop — the guy is clearly enjoying himself. And it’s contagious. Where he once interviewed guests like an autograph-seeking fan-boy, he now gets guests caught up in the fun environment he’s created. Fallon’s also found some durable bits of his own, like Thank You Notes and Slow Jamming The News (with help from Brian Williams), which add to the notion that this is more than just another talk show with parade of guests with something to plug.
One of the the most popular things I ever did in my radio career may have been a trivia segment called The Harris Challenge. Listeners loved to play along, even if they never called in to participate on the air, and so did many of my guests — Regis Philbin, Connie Chung, Graham Nash, John Goodman, various politicians and sports stars and other celebrities — asking the questions, helping contestants with answers, or sometimes just announcing the prizes we were giving away. Fallon does the same thing, getting his guests to take part in silly games like Charades or Password, with random audience members as partners. What other TV host does an interview over a game of Beer Pong?
Another morning radio similarity is Fallon’s penchant for song parodies. The difference is that most radio hosts have someone else who does them (a brilliant parodist named Mark Bradford contributed material to my shows for more than 15 years). Fallon doesn’t need anyone else to do them, because he’s the impressionist on his show, and he’s terrific. Take a look at his Neil Young singing “Whip My Hair” or Bob Dylan doing the “Charles In Charge” theme or last week’s Tim Tebow/David Bowie parody.
While Fallon imbues his show with cleverness like that, Conan O’Brien looks like he’s still trying too hard to prove something to the world, Craig Ferguson has let his quirks overtake his amiability, and Leno and Letterman are repeating bits they wore out a decade ago. Only Jimmy Kimmel infuses his broadcasts with energy and fun in a style that approaches Fallon’s — not a surprise, considering his years doing morning radio!
Jimmy Fallon is putting on A Show, and it takes time to get it right. He has.