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.

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.

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.