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Jimmy Fallon takes over 'Tonight Show'

Jimmy Fallon, your new "Tonight Show" host.

Jimmy Fallon, your new "Tonight Show" host. Credit: AP / NBC

So, what would you like to know about Jimmy?

Right, a last name would help. Fallon.

Of Irish provenance and Brooklyn birth, Jimmy was raised in an Ulster County town called Saugerties, or Exit 20 to those of you who regularly ply the New York State Thruway.

He is 39 years old, and wears stylish suits on the air that seem almost a little too trim. He is the father of a baby girl (Winnie). He spent seven seasons at "Saturday Night Live," shot a couple of forgettable movies ("Whip It," "Fever Pitch") and has headlined "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" for the past five years.

Starting Monday, he becomes host of TV's most storied franchise.

Introductions, even superficial ones, are helpful here because some of the viewers who went to sleep with Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" over the past 22 years wouldn't recognize Jimmy Fallon if they fell over him on the street.

Lorne Michaels, overseer of "SNL" and the new New York-based "Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," is said to have explained to associates with a gnomic near-certainty that "you need four years" to get late-night shows off the ground.

Michaels and his protege may well need all of those to get this one airborne.

That this transition is a "risk," and that millions of viewers were (and still are) perfectly comfortable with the most recent host of "Tonight," are observations that border on the banal because they are so obvious. But they don't even come close to answering the "why."

As is: Why exactly is Jimmy Fallon the new guy?

Even Fallon struggled to articulate a reason. Asked during January's TV Critics' press tour in Pasadena whether this was his "dream job," he groped for a response before finally settling on this one: "It wasn't at all my dream job because I didn't know that this could be a job that you could dream about. I mean, this is Johnny Carson."


There is, in fact, some logic to this move, along with a little bit of history. Foremost, NBC is betting that the great "Tonight Show" tradition will ultimately trump the immediate and obvious hazards.

That history and tradition are hardly foolproof. Leno's transition into the gig after Carson's retirement in 1992 was nearly a fiasco when he was almost fired six months in. Conan O'Brien's tenure lasted nine months in 2009-2010 before viewers bailed and NBC affiliates rebelled. Only two hosts out of five have lasted longer than five years. The second left a couple of weeks ago.

The differences with this succession, however, suggest that NBC may have actually studied its own history to avoid repeating it. Rick Ludwin, who ran NBC's late-night lineup for 30 years, beginning in 1980, and is now a consultant, says, "The way these transitions have worked in the past, with a few exceptions, is that gets the keys to the 'Tonight Show' when it's No. 1 and hands them off when it's No. 1."

"The ratings," he adds, "move glacially, and if you slip, it could take you 10 years to climb out of that hole."

While there's no evidence Leno's "Tonight" -- still No. 1 at the end -- was in a free fall, it was under intensified pressure. "Jimmy Kimmel Live!," ABC's late-night entry, moved to 11:35 in January 2012 and quickly established a beachhead among young adults. "Tonight's" young-adult ratings fell. NBC figured it had to make a decision before there would be no keys left to hand off.

But in a perverse bit of TV irony, "Tonight's" young adult ratings increased last year. NBC has explained -- perhaps too insistently -- that this surge was expected, as Leno fans took one last sentimental glance at the incumbent before he was gone for good. Leno's numbers have climbed since early last year, when Fallon was announced, with nearly 15 million tuning in for the Feb. 6 finale. (Fallon's "Late Night" ratings have also increased over this period.)

For NBC, however, the long-term issue was not so much the number of viewers as much as their age. They're nearly an average of 60 years old, late-night TV's oldest. "Late Show With David Letterman's" average is around 55.

Fallon's "Late Night"? Around 50.

Monday night, viewers will finally see the result of a year's worth of planning -- all built around the relative youth and vitality of the new host.

Back to introductions: For those who may not know Fallon, his humor tends to the screwball, farcical and absurdist. (He is not, like O'Brien, an ironist.) He is, by far, the most musical of late-night hosts -- a gifted performer with a decent voice whose mimicry of major artists, like Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Neil Young, Eddie Vedder (and many others) has been a career standout, often because those mimicked perform with him, too.

Justin Timberlake was on so often, the show at times almost seemed to have two hosts.


Fallon's "Tonight" will also have a band -- The Roots, the incumbent from "Late Night," who were renowned long before coming to 30 Rock. This "Tonight" will be vastly more musical than any previous iteration.

Fallon's opening monologue will be powered up a bit, running 10-12 minutes, with a heavier emphasis on topical jokes -- coin of the realm for "Tonight" since the early days, and copied by every other late-night show since.

Meanwhile, there is that very famous venue at 30 Rockefeller Plaza -- Studio 6B, from which "Late Night" originated. NBC could have easily moved Fallon's "Tonight Show" to the sprawling and now-vacated Burbank home of Leno's "Tonight Show," simply because of an endless supply of raw material nearby -- stars. Michaels and Fallon insisted on New York, and 6B.

Carson had decamped to Burbank from there in 1972, but part of "The Tonight Show" never entirely left its New York roots. Starting with Steve Allen in 1954, "Tonight" was designed to become the bookend of the TV day -- a mixture of high jinks, comedy, sketches and reasonably sophisticated talk.

But it was New York that was to become almost as much a star of the early "Tonight." After a 42-year absence, that star is finally back.


"I'm a little biased for New York, but I do think there's an energy to the city that you don't find any other place," says Beth McCarthy-Miller, the veteran director of "Saturday Night Live." "I remember once driving home from an 'SNL' after-party at 3:30 in the morning and the streets aren't just populated, but kind of crowded. There's a vibrancy that attracts so many different kinds of people, and that fits for Jimmy, who's an East Coast guy."

Of New York, Fallon says, "What's the worst that can happen? It's just a beautiful city. I think of New York, I think of nighttime. It's the perfect place where I should be. I think of the lights and Times Square and Broadway and nightlife and the excitement and the glitz and the glamour of all that is 'The Tonight Show.'"

Right, and a very long way -- and an eternity -- from Saugerties, too.

A set of seven fun Fallon facts

Here's what you need to know about Jimmy Fallon:

Born Sept. 19, 1974, in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to Gloria and James, who (with Fallon's older sister) would later move upstate, to Saugerties.

Became a huge fan of "Saturday Night Live" as a kid and would enact various parts from the show, demonstrating an early talent for comic impressions -- later a mainstay on his "Late Night." He attended the College of Saint Rose in Albany; majored in computer science, then communications. Did not graduate, but later got an honorary degree.

Began doing standup in and around Saugerties; left for Los Angeles, where he took improv classes at the Groundlings Theater (a famous improv venue).

"Saturday Night Live" comes calling in 1998. He does an audition filled with impressions (Seinfeld, Bono, Alanis Morissette), nails it.

Joins for the 1998-99 season. Becomes full cast member following season and "Weekend Update" co-anchor with Tina Fey in the 2000-01 season. Among his many recurring characters -- not including various musical impersonations -- Jarret, a pothead who hosts an Internet show; Obnoxious Tech Guy, Nick Burns; "Barry Gibb"; and the Guitar Player in the sketch "The How Do You Say? Ah Yes ... Show with Antonio Banderas." Leaves "SNL" in '04 for Hollywood.

First "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" (replacing Conan O'Brien, who leaves for "Tonight") airs March 2, 2009. First guests: Robert De Niro, Justin Timberlake, Nick Carter and Van Morrison.

On April 3, 2013, NBC announced that Fallon will replace Jay Leno at "The Tonight Show" during the Winter Olympics.

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