Jimmy Fallon, in his “Tonight Show” debut Monday, took Jay Leno’s advice to perform longer monologues to an extreme: He did two.
Fallon emerged twice from behind the blue, old-school “Tonight Show”-style curtain in his new New York studio — becoming emotional in his first go-around as he offered heartfelt thank you notes to everyone from his parents to sidekick Steve Higgins to his house band The Roots to his “Tonight Show” predecessors.
“I just want to do the best I can and take care of this show for a while,” he said, telling viewers his goal is to help them “go to sleep with a smile on your face and live a longer life.”
Moments later, he returned behind the curtain, came out again and started to deliver on his promise, unleashing a barrage of Winter Olympics-themed jokes.
The dual monologues set the tone for his inaugural “Tonight” outing — and perhaps for his tenure as host: Fallon showed his respect for the vaunted franchise while signaling he’s ready to lead late-night comedy to a new tomorrow.
The Roots’ revamped “Tonight” theme offered a kicking soundtrack for Spike Lee’s vibrant opening montage highlighting the show’s return to New York after four-plus decades in Burbank, Calif. There’s a carved wooden Manhattan skyline backdrop behind Fallon’s desk, and his first musical guests, U2, performed for an enthusiastic rooftop crowd atop 30 Rock.
Fallon played to his strengths, developed on “Saturday Night Live” and honed during his nearly five-year stint on “Late Night.” His “Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing” segment with first guest Will Smith proved vintage Fallon — and a sign that he’s planning to import some of his “Late Night”-style humor to the earlier hour.
While he maintained his humble, boyish charm, 39-year-old Fallon clearly took charge from the beginning of Monday’s show — unlike his nervous start to “Late Night” in 2009 when you could almost feel the drip of the flop sweat as he interviewed notoriously reticent first guest Robert DeNiro.
The actor stayed silent on Monday’s show as he led a slew of cameos from the likes of Tina Fey, Mariah Carey, Mike Tyson, Lady Gaga and Fallon’s new timeslot rival Stephen Colbert, who declared, “Welcome to 11:30, b----!”
Fallon seems happy to be on earlier, even as he tackles the daunting challenge of appealing to a wider audience than the crowd that tuned in at 12:30 a.m. for “Late Night.”
He’s clearly aware of the power of “The Tonight Show” legacy, which stretches beyond the decreasing relevancy of timeslot in the Internet age. Fallon showed as much in his first monologue when he nearly choked up as he recalled pleading his with parents to let him stay up to see Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” monologue.
“Just to think there’s gonna be a kid out there asking their parents to watch me, it just means a lot to me,” Fallon said.
Those kids – and Fallon – are the key to the continuing success of NBC’s long-running marquee late-night program, which got off to a strong new beginning Monday, guided by a host with eyes on yesterday and today as he vies to make his own mark on “Tonight.”
Watch highlights from the show below:
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.
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