Back in NY: Tonight Show Debuts with Jimmy Fallon

Photo courtesy The Tonight Show/NBC

Photo courtesy The Tonight Show/NBC

By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor

(Originally posted February 18, 2014) After a nearly 40 year stint on the west coast, where the Tonight Show was filmed and hosted in beautiful downtown Burbank, California, the newly retooled and remodeled show—now over 60 years old–was televised again in New York City, the town where it had been hosted generations ago by Steve Allen and Jack Paar.

The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon premiered on Monday, February 17 to what NBC hopes to be wide viewership, acceptance and high praise. To judge from the first installment with Fallon, the iconic show may be entering in good standing with its new incarnation after the previous 22 years under the comedic leadership of Jay Leno.

The Monday debut was approachable, direct and at times dazzling. It was also very funny, the key attribute for the rollout of a show so heavily watched by mainstream audiences and TV industry types.

Fallon began with a personal, somewhat humble introduction, praising his parents (his mom and dad were in the audience), and recognizing the great distance he had travelled from his small town upstate New York upbringing and his start on the equally iconic comedy show Saturday Night Live. Fallon introduced himself as “your host…for now,” a reference not lost on audience members or viewers who have followed the long, sometimes troubling saga of NBC’s love/hate relationship with Leno.

Fallon also introduced the new Tonight Show house band, an eight-man Philadelphia-based jazz-swing-soul-rock combo named The Roots, the same band that had been with him in his previous run as host of Late Night.

This week’s debut show, which did not slow down after his heartfelt and seemingly genuine opening, also included some pretty upbeat and upscale moments, among them a hilarious and well-choreographed musical sketch in which Fallon and Will Smith give the audience a brief, humorous history of hip hop dance moves.

There was also an energetic rooftop musical performance by U2, shot with precarious and vertiginous ingenuity atop the GE building at 30 Rockefeller Center, a few floors above where the Tonight Show digs are now located among NBC’s offices and television studios. Later, U2 band members came back into the new studio to visit with Fallon and perform one more tune, this time an acoustic set.

During the show Fallon pointed out that the new space—smartly decked out with tall blue curtains, deep, glistening wood paneling and an elaborate wood-grained model of the New York skyline behind his conservative desk, is the same studio used decades earlier by Jack Paar and Johnny Carson before the show moved to westward to Burbank in 1972.

After settling in at his new desk, Fallon also joked that the old friend who had once bet him $100 that he would never be the host of the Tonight Show, now owed him that C note—whereupon actor Robert De Niro entered the stage and dropped a one hundred dollar bill onto Fallon’s desk. Much to the delight of the audience, De Niro was followed by a procession of other stars, each handing him $100, and the cameo appearances included New Yorkers Joe Namath, Rudy Giuliani, Lady Gaga and Sarah Jessica Parker. Joan Rivers, once a frequent substitute host for the Tonight Show in Johnny Carson’s day, also made an appearance to pay her “debt,” as did Stephen Colbert, who—in lieu of a $100 bill—dumped a large bucket of copper pennies onto Fallon’s desk and shoulders, and into his lap.

“Welcome to 11:30, bitch,” said Colbert.

The multi-talented Fallon seemed genuinely thrilled to be the show’s new host, and indicated he understood the pressure he was under to please the audience and attract and retain newer, younger viewers. Fallon’s generally positive track record with SNL, and later at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, in the increasingly crowded world of late night TV entertainment has led NBC to bank heavily on the success of the newly revamped show.

NBC hopes to regain the high ground in the ratings war in the post-11:00 slot, now populated by shows those of like David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, Arsenio Hall and others—all of whom have developed their own dedicated followings.

Jay Leno, who took over after the retirement of Carson in 1992, gave his last performance as host of the Tonight Show a few weeks ago, and in an emotional goodbye he thanked his fans and those who had worked with him for so many years on the show. He also wished Fallon luck on the show. Leno’s contract with NBC would have taken him through the fall of this year, but he agreed to an early buyout equal to one year’s salary.

Most viewers who watched the new show rated Fallon’s performance a success. And now NBC crosses its fingers in the hopes that ratings remain solid.

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