How Jimmy Fallon Gets Such Great Musical Guests

People who accomplish great things, and how they do it.
Nov. 14 2012 4:00 AM

How Jimmy Fallon Gets Such Great Musical Guests

The man who revitalized the sound of late night.

Bruce Springsteen on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon perform "I'm Sexy and I Know It."
Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Fallon perform "Sexy and I Know It"

Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

Late-night television doesn’t usually save the best for last. The opening monologue leads with its best joke, and then there’s another short sketch or bit, and then there are guest interviews (the A-lister comes first), and only then, for anyone still awake, does the host go through the motions of introducing the musical performance. Too often this last part, sandwiched between commercials, feels perfunctory at best. Shows like Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s have done away with music almost entirely.

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

But over on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, many of the show’s most memorable moments have been musical: Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake sliding from one voice to the next in delivering a “History of Rap,” or Bruce Springsteen deadpanning LMFAO in a Born in the USA growl. When the world got its introduction to the “swag generation,” via rising hip-hop collective Odd Future, it was on Fallon. After a performance that incorporated the Travelocity gnome and the group generally transforming the studio into their own personal playground, the show ended with group leader Tyler the Creator leaping into a gleeful piggyback atop Jimmy Fallon. The audience response was so strong (Mos Def stormed the stage screaming “swag!”) that you couldn’t even make out Fallon’s sign-off.

How does Fallon, late night’s new kid on the block, so handily whip its competition in this department? It doesn’t hurt that they have, as they so often remind their viewers, “the greatest band in late night” in hip-hop luminaries the Roots. Or that their host, too, is more musically talented than his rivals. But show after show, there’s one man at the center. Or, actually, just off to the side of the stage, behind the curtain: music booker Jonathan Cohen.

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Cohen explains that the secret to Fallon’s success has been its dedication to aiming big, trying new things, and making sure that artists have the kind of experience that will keep them coming back. He hopes bands will leave saying to themselves (and each other), “Hey, maybe we had a bad experience on TV one time, but we came to Fallon and it was really fun and different and cool and it sounded great and the audience liked it.” This approach seems to be paying off.

Take Bruce Springsteen, a dream guest of Fallon’s. Cohen reached out to Camp Springsteen as soon as he got into his office, and checked in with them again and again for months (“almost to the point of annoyance,” Cohen says). When they finally found an opening, around the rerelease of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Cohen and his team showed a willingness to break from late-night conventions: Instead of having just one song at the end, they dedicated the whole show to Springsteen, who in turn gave a two-part interview, did a cover of a pop song by Willow Smith, and dropped his usual E Street Band to do two vintage tracks with the Roots. It was the most exciting evening of music on late night in recent memory.

In fact, it went so well that that they did it again last winter, this time with a whole blowout “Bruce Springsteen Week,” complete with tributes from the likes of Elvis Costello and John Legend, more of the Boss revisiting classic songs with the Roots, and, of course, another collaboration with Fallon-as-Neil Young (“Sexy and I Know It”).

The booking of Odd Future was a similar story. Cohen, who was an editor at Billboard and who still dedicates whole chunks of each day to staying up on the latest music (he describes Roots guitarist Kirk Douglas as a “show buddy” who helps him ferret out great stuff), reached out to the rising hip-hop group months before most of America caught on. And though the collective had a reputation for courting controversy, Fallon insisted on giving them a chance. The result was a huge success for all involved, lighting up all the music blogs the next morning. The next year, when fellow Odd Future associate Frank Ocean was ready to make his heavily anticipated TV debut , the kind of performance that was worth staying up for, he agreed to do it on Fallon.

As part of a longer interview with Slate, we asked Cohen to reveal how he’s scored some of late night’s best performances.

Slate: When it comes to your job, some readers will imagine Ari from Entourage or something like that. Is it pretty much just you shooting emails?

Jonathan Cohen: You know, each booking is sort of different—both from where the idea may have been generated to the way it actually becomes a reality. A lot of times, yeah, it’s just emails and calls back and forth with the representative for a given artist. But a lot of times Jimmy will send me an email and say, “Hey, I just heard this on KCRW or KEXP or on Spotify, what do you think?” or he may say, “What’s such-and-such doing?” Then I’ll go on a search for whomever he might be interested in having. The Roots are definitely part of the creative process as well, they may put someone in front of me or I may pitch them an idea and it sort of takes off from there.

Slate: Are there specific ideas that come to mind that were Jimmy’s or the Roots’?

Cohen: Oh yeah, I mean, quite a few. One of the earlier ones, which I think was maybe in the first couple of weeks that we were on the air, was the Roots backing Public Enemy. They happened to be in town and that was definitely [Roots bandleader] Questlove saying, “This would be awesome, we’d love to do it” and then my making a call to their manager and saying, “Hey, what about this?” And that was one of the first performances that really caught people’s attention, especially online, that, you know, wow, this can be an awesome format. You can pair any number of groups with the Roots and they can turn in something really special.

Another early one was we had Michael McDonald and Christopher Cross come on to do “Ride Like the Wind.” Which was just something that Jimmy emailed me out of the blue like, “What if we tried this?” And, you know, I don’t think that Christopher Cross was up to all that much. He’s still a working musician, but I don’t think he’s been on TV in decades. Pairing those two artists with the Roots turned into something really, really cool and buzzy.

Slate: Were you anxious about the Odd Future performance? Did you know that they were going to run riot all over the studio?

Cohen: No, we had no idea, and they didn’t do it during rehearsal, so I was definitely nervous. I was really nervous in the moments afterwards because I wasn’t sure whether Jimmy was cool with what they did but he was totally excited and happy about it and that has definitely become a sort of iconic moment in terms of musical performances here.

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