The television industry is going to forget about Jimmy Fallon about two weeks after he takes over for Conan O'Brien next year on NBC. And that is the best thing that could possibly happen to the rookie.
If Fallon's press conference last week announcing the new gig is any indication, his first week will include equal amounts of quick wit, hyped-up nerves, involuntary leg twitching and talking really, really fast. Or as my wife would put it: our first date.
It will also include a circus of attention on his monologue, comedy bits, interviewing chops and even what he is wearing. And obviously, the media will compare his ratings to Conan's, Craig Ferguson's over on CBS, and every other show that has debuted recently.
And then after a week or two, it will all settle down—and he can get to work. That's when we'll find out if Jimmy Fallon the talk show host is for real. Like many, I'm equally intrigued and dubious.
There is no doubt Fallon can deliver funny lines, as we all remember from Saturday Night Live, where he had some memorable moments at the Weekend Update anchor desk. NBC rolled some SNL highlights at his press conference, which included one of the great double-entendre bits in recent memory.
Interviewing Paris Hilton on set, Fallon asked about the actual Hilton hotel in Paris: “Is it hard to get into the Paris Hilton?” From there, the questions only got more disgusting—and hysterical. My Minnesota upbringing prohibits me from repeating them here.
But a nightly talk show ain't Weekend Update. And while he has guest-hosted for David Letterman, NBC is taking a big flyer on this guy, much as they did with Conan.
And like O'Brien before his debut, there are plenty of doubts. The first will be whether Fallon has the inherent desire to stick with the slog that it takes to build a nightly talk show and then grow it.
While Fallon tells a cute story about being called “Most Likely to Replace David Letterman” in a kindergarten yearbook, this was not his dream job. He always wanted to be on SNL. He nailed that 10 years ago. But at some point most performers outgrow SNL—if they are any good—and Fallon tried to move to movies.
That didn't take off as he had hoped. Last year, he signed an NBC development deal with the talk show as a goal —if his movie career didn't take off before. It didn't.
“I tried it, but it didn't work out as big as I had wanted obviously,” Fallon told me. So now, Fallon will learn how to host a talk show. But he'll have plenty of time and some good mentors.
To get his timing back, Fallon has hit the standup circuit once again. He says that is “out of Jay Leno's playbook,” referring to the Tonight Show host, who still does standup regularly. Lucky for Fallon, that playbook won't include Leno's fate of getting prematurely pushed out of his chair.
Instead—and most important to his potential success—he will have NBC's patience. The network let Conan grow, and it will do the same here.
Fallon's early shows will get a ton of attention, especially his ratings. It will be tough against an improving Ferguson and possibly with a weaker lead-in of Conan O'Brien up against Leno elsewhere, and Letterman.
Fallon's first offerings very well may stink. And that's OK.
The same thing happened to Jimmy Kimmel, whose early shows were a mess. But now he is so established that he was openly joking on stage last week about jumping to Fox if Jay Leno ends up on ABC. That's progress.
Fallon's best friend will be patience, and the knowledge that if he tanks, he still won't be the worst Weekend Update alum ever to host a talk show. You will never be topped, Chevy Chase.
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