Slate: You’ve become known for snagging artist debuts, ahead of all the other shows, and Odd Future is an example of that. Is there something about how you guys go about booking artists that you would cite as being behind that? Frank Ocean is another name that comes to mind.
Cohen: Sure. With Frank, I had been pursuing that for a very long time before it actually happened—before he had music out. A couple people that worked with him clued me in that he was someone to watch, and I kept up a dialogue with them for over a year in an attempt to be first with it. The timing just worked out, the strategy worked out, we were part of the launch of the record in a very important way. That was just another moment where the stars aligned: They felt comfortable debuting in here, he felt comfortable making the announcement that he did [coming out about a same-sex relationship]—which we didn’t know anything about—and it created this perfect storm of attention. I think it definitely helped sell a lot of records for them that first week, too.
Slate: Another big hit for you guys has been the performances you’ve done with Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy as Neil Young—“Whip My Hair” and “Sexy and I Know It.” How did those come about?
Cohen: That was just Jimmy and the writers batting around fun ideas. It was Bruce’s idea initially to dress up like his old self, so he brought some of those actual items of clothing with him. And there was a funny moment right before they went out on set where Bruce’s manager Jon Landau saw him in his full getup with the beard and was so startled at time being turned backward right in front of his eyes. As far as I know, he’s never done anything like that on TV before—you don’t always think of him as the most comedic guy—and for whatever reason, he just felt really comfortable here and was totally willing to try something that was brand new for him.
Slate: So those clothes that he brought were actually the original clothes he wore [around Born To Run and Born in the USA]?
Cohen: Yeah, I believe some of them were. For sure.
Slate: In terms of collaborations with the Roots, is that something you’re heavily involved in, or do Questlove and the band go out and begin to work those out on their own?
Cohen: No, that process always starts with me. Obviously, I get their sign-off before I commit anyone to appearing with them, but once we’ve made a decision that such-and-such is going to play with them, that process takes shape in a number of different ways. Like in the case of Beyoncé, her musical director came here in advance of the appearance, helped work out an arrangement with the Roots so that it was totally ready to go on the day of the show. Other times, it’s a lot more spontaneous where they’ll just try something out in rehearsal that day once the artist gets there and hone it from there.
Slate: The sound often is better on Fallon than on some of the other late-night shows. Is that also a draw for artists? Is that something you’ve worked on securing?
Cohen: Absolutely. One hundred percent. That’s something that’s very important to us, that people are represented in the best possible light. It’s very important to Jimmy, and it’s very important to our audio team. That’s another element of what I was talking about before where we try to make this an extremely artist-friendly place, everything from the way that the band sounds to the way that they’re treated while they’re here.
Slate: One of the new setups you’ve been doing lately is where you have artists come in and bang on stuff around the office. You had Carly Rae Jepsen [playing the triangle], and then Christina Aguilera banging on a stapler. How did that idea evolve?
Cohen: Same as the Bruce idea. It was just something that got kicked around between Jimmy and the writers. The Carly Rae one has been just a total viral sensation. It speaks to the sensibilities here that the finger is on the pulse, so to speak. We’ve been very lucky with our timing especially on something like that. People weren’t sick of “Call Me Maybe” at that point, and we came up with something different than all the other cover versions that had been out there. That’s the creativity of all the people on the show joining forces to come up with something new.
Slate: Is there any particular story behind those “History of Rap” medleys you’ve done with Timberlake?
Cohen: That, again, is the astounding creativity of the two of them on display. Those were things that they worked up mostly on their own and the first time they did it, they really only rehearsed it a couple times and just had it absolutely down cold. So it was quite something to watch them do that in the studio and the crowd go insane, because that’s not something your average talk-show host can do competently. With Jimmy, that’s just second nature to him. It’s one of his many talents. I hope we do more of them.
Slate: Your biggest coup for a musical guest must have been the president of the United States. Whose idea was it to have Obama “slow jam the news”? Did the campaign approach the show?
Cohen: That was an idea generated by our writing team and Jimmy. He was obviously the ultimate get for that bit since we started doing it. And lo and behold they said yes. That’s an example of something you would only see here. Obama definitely has made the rounds on talk shows but he has never done something like that.
Slate: Do you have any surprises in store for later this fall and 2013?
Cohen: We’ve got a lot of cool stuff coming up. Carrie Underwood is on tomorrow—that’s something I’ve been working on for several years, to get her on the show—we have the Dave Matthews Band coming back, we have Alicia Keys, we have Pitbull, we have Zac Brown … a lot of good heavy-hitters before the end of the year. And we’re definitely working on some cool and exciting things for next year that I cannot quite disclose yet …
Slate: I’ll stay tuned.
This interview has been condensed and edited.