Feb 18, 2014

Channel Surfing: The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon - with Will Smith and U2

Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
Over the long course of TV, there have been very few institutions with a rare academy of cast members. Shows like Saturday Night Live collect the young talents with intention of making them stars. In fact, what makes the later night programming so fascinating is the need to be more than just someone standing on a stage like the daytime counterparts. The audience is tired and in desperate need for a laugh. Few institutions have been as synonymous with late night quality than The Tonight Show, which came to prominence with Johnny Carson, who hosted for over 30 years and continued with Jay Leno, who remained a dominant force against CBS competitor David Letterman.
The late night programming has been an interesting ground, largely because it keeps trying to find ways to be relevant to younger audiences. Many problems with The Tonight Show in the past decade has been that Jay Leno appeals to an older audience that while viable, wasn't capable of maintaining younger people's interests. Along with the infamous feud and brief fiasco involving The Tonight Show's momentary replacement Conan O'Brien, it seemed like NBC was forever in need of some desperate fixing. Even when Leno wasn't hosting The Tonight Show, he hosted a 10 PM program called The Jay Leno Show, which only muddled the ratings more. 
However, in the midst of all of this, around 12:35 AM every night was Jimmy Fallon: a Saturday Night Live alumni who much like O'Brien wasn't fit for the talk show scene at first. After making his mark on Late Night in 2009, Fallon has become a behemoth of change to the talk show market. He didn't so much thrive on the traditional monologue and interview format that his lead-in did as he found a way to make the show accessible beyond the after hours crowd. In a sense, he was the rightful successor to the O'Brien era of The Tonight Show in that he was lively and self deprecating in ways that related to audiences.
His show's biggest strengths was incorporation of viral marketing. Often using his guests, he would perform comedic song numbers and play games. He made the atmosphere lively, but also able to translate it into five minute videos capable of being watched on Youtube the following morning. Even for those that don't watch late night programming are familiar with some of Fallon's routines, as they have become cultural landmarks akin to what Andy Samberg did on Saturday Night Live with Digital Shorts. He got audience's attention and made the show known in ways that other late night hosts such as Craig Ferguson or even the current run of Arsenio Hall haven't done. The only one who comes close in the conversation is Jimmy Kimmel.
While it seems likely that The Tonight Show doesn't hold as much esteem to younger viewers, Fallon at very least knows how to appeal to the populous. This is most evident in his first episode as host of the show, which moved the late night institution back to New York for the first time in over four decades. Even metaphorically, this face lift helped to wash off the era of Leno and the notoriety that he had built. This was a reboot to the largest degree, and it was promising to be a fun one with an exciting house band, The Roots, and a sense of liveliness.

Along with several pieces praising the comedian's debut, a testament should be made to the idea that the above video, in less than 12 hours of airing, has already acquired over 1.7 MILLION views. In the video, Fallon and first guest Will Smith do several famous hip-hop dances in matching outfits. The bit is comical yet informative. It allows the guest to let loose and have some fun, which is something that rarely feels done in these late night shows. It gives them a nice break from the doldrums of the familiar interviews while also creating content that people will want to see. The simple sell? Where else are you going to see Smith doing this? 
The whole show also feels like a fresh and new format as well. Besides the typical monologue, there's some mixing up of the format. Upon introducing his state in The Tonight Show host chair, he is bombarded with several guests who walk on to momentous cheer. It is all topped, in one of the most meta ways, by Stephen Colbert (whose The Colbert Report plays opposite his show on Comedy Central at the same time) stating "Welcome to 11:30, bitch!" The bit is unfortunately a little on the gimmicky side and not much exciting happens after the fifth or so guest besides face recognition, but Colbert's capper alone makes it worthwhile. It feels like an embrace of the new host.
Even the choice to have musical guest U2 perform midway through the show felt fresh. While often reserved for the end, their performance was prerecorded atop a skyscraper overlooking the city as the band played their new song "Invisible." It was a peculiar site, but no doubt a nice interlude from Fallon's opening half and the later interview portion, which also featured U2 performing an acoustic version of their Oscar-nominated song "Ordinary Love." It may be a small change in order of events, but it does keep the show and the general concept of variety to feel just like that: random. Things keep moving and the show never loses momentum because while it is essentially a late night show in the traditional sense, the order of events is different enough to play to Fallon's intentions.
Not being a fan of Fallon previously and having never seen an episode of his Late Night stint, it is hard for me to judge exactly what the big differences are between that and The Tonight Show. Either way, it is impressive to see that in five years, he has made a groove that works. Most of all, he makes the show feel relevant again in ways that wasn't being achieved by Leno. Even to an extent, O'Brien's brief run was plagued by poor NBC planning and never quite had time to capture the zeitgeist.
Even if the 11.3 million who tuned into watch the first episode will not be back tonight, it is likely that the show will remain relevant and in discussion. While TV viewing has become closer to impossible to watch on a wide template, Fallon has found a way to compete with the increasing late night shows. Those segments alone will likely be popping up on Youtube and become viral hits on their own. If Johnny Carson was king of water cooler discussion with his monologues, Fallon is going to be the digital equivalence. He may never quite appeal to the vast audience of his predecessors, but he brings life to something that has felt stale and ridiculed for quite some time.

It is debatable how long this reign will stay. Even if Leno is claiming to have retired, in a way that no one is convinced of, there is still that chance that NBC will go back to old ways. The only fruitful notion is that Fallon is fresh and gets viewers in ways that O'Brien didn't quite do. He was funny and aloof, but his audience wasn't entirely on NBC anymore. Fallon feels more like a universal type who is punchy without being offensive. He can make guests feel accessible and most of all, he can deliver segments on a nightly basis that people will talk about. That alone suggests longevity, especially in a market that is more DVR than live programming. It is too early to see how well this format will work, but if it worked for five years at a later time slot, there's no reason it cannot work here.

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