By SHARVARI JOHARI ’17
There are two ways to measure the success of a late-night show: consistency in ratings and ingenuity of comedy. Jay Leno’s “The Tonight Show” was a ratings juggernaut, consistently placing first among late-night shows. David Letterman’s “The Late Show,” meanwhile, came in second week after week, month after month. But if you were to ask comedy fans who the better comic is, Letterman is the clear winner, and other comedians—including Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon—have followed Letterman’s style rather than Leno’s. While Letterman’s comedy is more eccentric and intellectual, Leno’s comedy is more biting and has a broader appeal for the masses.
Many comedians have hosted “The Tonight Show” in the six decades since 1954. They put in their hours, hosting and working their way up the time slots, and hope that maybe, just maybe, their name will be held up alongside the great Johnny Carson’s. The show’s pristine and reputable image was slightly tarnished when Conan O’Brien inherited the hosting gig. O’Brien experimented with weird humor until ratings fell, and he was unceremoniously fired after a few months. Leno, whose own new show had just failed, took over, and his writers trimmed back his predecessor’s outrageous sketches.
Now Jimmy Fallon is officially replacing Leno in a move that NBC is hoping will stick—the network wants us to forget the Leno-O’Brien kerfuffle. Although Fallon’s comedy is more mainstream than O’Brien’s, he has different strengths than Leno. However, Fallon exhibits at least some of O’Brien’s ingenuity. He excels at sketch humor and casual interviews whereas Leno relied most on the opening monologue and one-liner comedy.
This raises the question: Why is the “Tonight Show” keeping the monologue? Fallon does not have that zing necessary for one-liner monologue jokes. He does not have the political expertise of Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart. He cannot pull off the observational, improvisational opening of Craig Ferguson. This is a problem because television audiences have a notoriously short attention span, tending to tune in for the first five minutes and then changing the channel if not sufficiently enthralled. Because the monologue is at the beginning of the show, Fallon needs to either dramatically change the format of his show or improve his delivery. Continuing Carson’s monologue legacy shouldn’t mean sacrificing good comedy.
Fallon’s strengths lie in goofy, friendly humor. Audiences like Fallon because he reminds us of our younger dorky brother, at once affable and silly. On “Saturday Night Live,” Fallon wasn’t the impression guy or the comedy genius. Instead, he was the fratty yet friendly presence offsetting Tina Fey’s snark on Weekend Update, where he was so enthused by the jokes that he frequently broke character. He seemed so excited by everyone around him. No one wants to hear him snidely insulting celebrities or arguing politics. It’s clear he wants to do neither of these things.
“The Tonight Show” shines brightest when it lets Fallon be Fallon. The truest laughs emerge from his sketches and when he helps celebrities be silly. The evidence is in what goes viral, like the Twitter buzzes about Kristen Wiig’s hilarious portrayal of Harry Styles. Fans enjoy running jokes like speaking only in hashtags. The most popular bit, and my personal favorite, is the friendship between Justin Timberlake and Fallon.
Fallon’s true strength is that he’s everyone’s best friend. He’s much too friendly to ever be a hard-hitting interviewer, but he does facilitate untraditional silliness on TV. What worked on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” is what works on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.” Antiquated methods in the vein of Jay Leno fall flat.
The future of Fallon’s show depends on what the network finds more important: ratings or buzz. Other late-night shows like Key & Peele have low ratings yet are incredibly popular online. People are watching, but not on their televisions—which mean they’re not watching commercials, the primary sponsors of television shows. Fallon’s “Late Show” found online success in sketches, probably inspired by Fallon’s SNL history. His “History of Rap” and “Lipsync” videos went viral, making “The Tonight Show” popular. Ratings may fall, but if Fallon can keep this online buzz alive, his “Tonight Show” legacy may rival that of Carson.