Biggest difference happened on Monday night when Fallon did two opening monologues – the first in which he introduced himself and set up the show’s storyline for the next (NBC hopes) 20 years or so, trying to put at ease the many Jay Leno viewers who heard Jay say he’s good with being shown the door while still No. 1 in the ratings, but who may not feel so hot about it themselves. That night, Fallon described himself as a guy who grew up in a small town and lives with his “beautiful wife” and six-month old daughter Winnie who he loves so much. He noted his announcer Steve Higgins is from Iowa and lives with his wife and great kids, and that his band The Roots, had backed up Tony Bennett.
Not coincidentally, Fallon’s opening mirrored Leno’s Tonight Show finale in many ways. Both men’s shows included a parade of celebrities paying tribute to the host (weirdly, Kim Kardashian appeared in both parades, though it may not be so odd, what with her Keeping Up with the Kardashians being produced by Ryan Seacrest — an important member of the NBC-parent Comcast family). Jay Leno ended his final broadcast talking about losing his mother and father in the first year he hosted the program; Fallon began his tenure on Tonight with a wave to his mom and dad in the audience, saying how happy he was they are still around, and telling them he hoped they were proud of him, adding “thanks for being there, you guys, I love you.”
Leno said so-long with a talk about the Tonight Show legacy; Fallon gave a shout out to all Tonight Show hosts past, adding, “I just want to do it the best I can and take care of this show for a while, and if you [viewers] let me stick around long enough, maybe I’ll get the hang of it.”
Fallon’s gee willikers opener was extremely savvy and, in tone, a 180 compared to the 2009 cold open of Leno’s other replacement, Conan O’Brien. O’Brien made a video running across the country from New York, where he’d hosted Late Night before Fallon, to Los Angeles, where he hosted Tonight Show for 7 months before NBC decided to put Leno back in late night and move Conan-hosted Tonight to a later timeslot. Conan said no thanks and bowed out. And, if you’re wondering why Will Ferrell wasn’t Fallon’s first guest on Tonight Show – he was Conan’s, back in ’09, congratulating Conan on the gig and adding, “No one thought you could do it! No one!” Fallon, instead, had Robert De Niro. Tina Fey, Joe Namath, Rudy Giuliani, Mariah Carey, Tracy Morgan, Joan Rivers, Kardashian, Seth Rogen, Lindsay Lohan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mike Tyson, Lady Gaga, and Stephen “Welcome to 11:30 – Bitch!” Colbert say the same thing, in effect, as they took turns slapping down $100 bills to pay off a bet that Fallon would never make it to Tonight. Farrell was Fallon’s guest on Thursday night instead.
For Week 1 at least, Fallon wisely did not take Leno’s advice and beef up the length of his opening monologue – monologues, like interviews, are not Fallon’s strength. With the exception of that first night when he spent time introducing himself and his show regulars to Tonight Show viewers, Fallon kept his opening monologues fairly short at about seven minutes. And those monologues got padded with time-consuming gags, like Roots’ Questlove and Tariq re-enacting a girls’ catfight scene from a recent episode of ABC’s The Bachelor.
Episodes have instead, like episodes of Fallon’s Late Night, played to his strengths: music, mimicry, and exuberance. Which, in one of those happy coincidences, is just as well, because monologues and interviews don’t tend to go viral. You know what does to viral? Bits in which a late-night show host teams up with Will Smith for the Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing (Monday), plays charades with Bradley Cooper (Wednesday), does an Ew! sketch with Will Ferrell and the First Lady (Thursday), and duets History of Rap 5 with Justin Timberlake (Friday Night), and remixes of Brian Williams, Lester Holt and Kathie Lee Gifford performing Sugar Hill Gang’s 1979 classic “Rappers Delight” – those go viral, introducing a whole new generation to Tonight Show.
Which is not to say Fallon did no interviews during his first week at Tonight. When Jerry Seinfeld sat down to chat on Night 2, most of their allotted interview time was gobbled up with Seinfeld reminiscing about old comedy bits, at Fallon’s request – when the two weren’t seeing who did the best Seinfeld imitation. Another Week 1 interview that might have become a yawn-inducing gush-fest, with Kristin Wiig, instead got turned into a funny comedy bit when she came out dressed as One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles about whom it appeared Wiig knew virtually nothing, and struggled to come up with correct answers to the beauty-pageant questions Fallon lobbed her way. The interview ended when Fallon asked her to sing a One Direction tune, then joined in to bail her out. Likewise when Cooper came on the show to plug American Hustle, the interview/movie plug lasted only the briefest of moments before the two men were joined on stage by Tim McGraw and Emma Thompson to play charades.
Seinfeld got billed as Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’s first comedian performance. When he was finished with his set, Seinfeld re-buttoned his suit jacket and stood on stage, looking over at Fallon seated behind his desk, until Fallon nodded and waved him over to the couch. It was a nod to Johnny Carson, who did the same when he thought a comic had hit a home run on the show. “Thank you, Mr. Fallon,” Seinfeld said, as he sat down. It was one of several nods to Carson in the show’s first week — though Joan Rivers’ inclusion in the opening night bet-payoff parade might have been seen by some as a snub to Carson, who famously banned her from the show when she accepted a gig hosting a short-lived late-night talk show on Fox, after he’d made her his “permanent” guest host.
In another departure from Jay Leno’s Tonight, don’t expect to see a stream of politicians on the show announcing their candidacy or doing a bit of campaigning — a Leno Tonight Show trademark. That is, unless they’re willing to slow-jam the news, or play straight woman in a SNL-esque skit with Fallon and Ferrell, as did Barack Obama on Fallon’s Late Night, and Michelle Obama on Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’s debut week (though the First Lady did manage to slip in a quick plug for Obamacare and its website healthcare.gov, eliciting the response, “It’s so much better when it’s working,” from Fallon.) A recent study revealed Leno averaged about three times as many political gags on Tonight than Fallon did on Late Night.
Reporters Who Cover Television were poised this week with the overnight ratings track from the short-lived Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, who NBC had crowned King of Late Night after his first week back in ’09. In his first two nights, Fallon’s numbers ran on par with Conan’s. After that, the two men parted company; Conan’s numbers continuing to decline, while Fallon’s numbers climbed. Fallon’s first full week, The Tonight Show averaged about 8.5 million viewers, making it the franchise’s most-watched week in 20 years. Looks like maybe Seinfeld got it right when he said of Fallon this week that we will get to see, “after 600,000 Thank You Notes and Justin Timberlake song parodies, can he manage to not have a social, psychological, sexual eccentricity arise?”