Way back when television first started, the real battleground was daytime, when legions of stuck-at-home housewives could be lured with soap operas and dish detergent commercials. Later on, as viewing habits changed and the medium expanded, primetime became the real field of honor. In the ’80s, though, late night became the last great network knock-down-drag-out. David Letterman came on the scene in ’82, ruling with “Late Night” on NBC and opening the door for Arsenio Hall and countless others. When the network handed Johnny Carson’s plum gig on “The Tonight Show” to Jay Leno, Letterman bolted to rival CBS. Dozens of post-evening-news slot chatters have come and gone since then. But the prize remains the top-rated “Tonight Show.”
On Feb. 17 “The Tonight Show” changed hands for only the fifth time (or sixth, depending on how you look at it). Steve Allen started it in 1954. Jack Paar took it over in 1957. Johnny Carson ran it from 1962-1992. Jay Leno had it until 2009 when he got a talk show in primetime. Conan O’Brien accepted the reins but had them for less than a year after Leno’s primetime gig failed and he was sent back to late night. Still a tad miffed over NBC’s bungling of his time slot, Leno was eventually asked to retire for good and bequeath the show to Jimmy Fallon (who has been chilling in David Letterman’s old time slot since 2009).
On Monday the easygoing “Saturday Night Live” alum took to the assignment with aplomb. He chatted with actor Will Smith, welcomed musical guest U2 and joked about the Olympics. As transitions go, it wasn’t an enormous sea change. There’s only so much you can do with the format (recite monologue, interview A-list actor, welcome musical guest) and the set dressing (desk, band, announcer, fake skyline behind the couch). But Fallon seems comfortable amid the show’s pleasingly old-school setting (dark color palette, exposed brick and nifty wooden skyscrapers).
That doesn’t mean, though, that some things aren’t very different all of a sudden. “The Tonight Show” is now broadcasting from New York for the first time since 1972. This takes it out of the Hollywood realm and into a hipper East Coast zip code. That puts it in competition for guests with New Yorkers like David Letterman—who’s over at CBS these days. That didn’t stop Fallon from landing a parade of guest stars for an epic, opening night bit. (Robert De Niro, Tina Fey, Joan Rivers, Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga, Seth Rogen, Kim Kardashian and Stephen Colbert all tromped though the studio in quick succession.) Humor-wise, Fallon is much younger and more “with it” than the 63-year-old Leno. On his inaugural outing, he presented an “Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing” sequence with Will Smith that Grandpa Leno would never have attempted. Fallon’s still a genial, likable guy, but he’s not a kiss-ass (unlike Leno). His humor is au courant without being too “edgy” (unlike O’Brien). Middle America may occasionally be confused over some of his punchlines, but he should fit into the famed time slot just fine by not reinventing the wheel and by just being himself.