The late-night airwaves are going through a major sea change, at least on NBC. After a run of nearly 17 years on “The Tonight Show,” Jay Leno is making a rather surprising move, bringing his mainstream-America style of chat show to NBC’s prime time lineup five nights a week. That means that Conan O’Brien is getting bumped up a slot, abandoning “Late Night” and taking over Leno’s old gig as host of “The Tonight Show.” (That’s scheduled to take place later this summer.) Of course, that historic changing of the guard leaves a power vacuum back on David Letterman’s former “Late Night” haunt. As a result, NBC executives have reached into their network talent pool and plucked Jimmy Fallon from “Saturday Night Live” (a gig he gave up in 2006). Fallon debuted on “Late Night” last week to generally solid numbers (his first show beat time slot rival Craig Ferguson by 35 percent) and kind (if not exactly glowing) reviews.
For some reason, I always confuse Fallon with fellow “SNL”er Chris Kattan, who gives me nightmarish flashbacks of Corky Romano and A Night at the Roxbury. In actuality, Fallon stunk up the screen in the comedy flops Taxi and Fever Pitch. (So hard to keep track, really.) Still, Fallon seems like a nice guy, a genial dude-next-door type, somebody you wouldn’t mind knocking back a beer with. He demonstrated a solid grasp of pop culture and a decent sense of timing during his years behind the legendary “Weekend Update” desk at “SNL.” Why not give him his own talk show?
During his first week, Fallon (or his bookers, anyway) landed a few solid “gets.” Robert De Niro, Van Morrison and Tina Fey dropped by. Fey provided Fallon his best moments, reminding audiences of the chemistry they had on “Weekend Update.” He goofed around with guests and audience members, getting them to participate in bits like “Lick It For Ten” and “Atmospherascope.” Fallon had the expected “new guy” jitters, but settled into the role of “softball pitcher for studio flacks” fairly well, asking easy questions and dutifully screening clips from upcoming movies.
So far, the show is distressingly traditional: opening monologue, banter with the house band (admittedly fine hip-hoppers The Roots), a couple brief comedy sketches, one or two big guests, followed by one “real” person (chef, scientist, animal trainer) or a musical act. Fallon lacks the irascible charm of Letterman and the surreal sideshow antics of O’Brien—which may be his undoing. Given that Fallon comes on well after prime time and will be the final slot in three solid hours’ worth of talk shows on NBC (Leno at 9, O’Brien at 10:30, Fallon at midnight), there’s a real question of how much patience viewers will have. I’d like to root for Fallon, but I get the feeling that his easygoing, low-key style isn’t gonna keep too many people awake in the long run.