Jimmy Fallon kicked off his tenure as the new host of The Tonight Show in hardcore unassuming mode. In the new terminology of the title, Fallon is the star of the show—The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon instead of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno—but his first episode had a deep “aw shucks, can you believe I’m here and that so many famous people like me!?” vibe. Fallon’s move to an earlier time slot has been heralded as a way to make late night younger and hipper. Fallon, just by being Fallon, is automatically younger and hipper than Leno. But the tenor of his first episode was not “here’s something crazy and new” so much as “I’m a good kid, I promise, please let me take this show out for a drive.”
The show kicked off with Fallon, looking simultaneously excited and nervous, coming out onto a New York City stage in light gray suit—a sartorial break from Leno’s dark suit tradition—and doing a very low-key, jovial but not particularly jokey introduction of himself, house band the Roots, his parents, and the show’s regular format, all of it about as first-day-of-school as The Tonight Show can get. Fallon gave some brief biographical details. (“I’m 39 years old,” etc.) He introduced his sidekick. He expressed immense gratitude for the gig. “If you guys let me stick around long enough,” Fallon said, "Maybe I’ll get the hang of it.”
Fallon’s appeal is how earnest and energetic he is: the king of comedic kindness. He has an infectious enthusiasm not marred by any of the edge or irony of other late night stalwarts. Fallon is always happy to be there, always happy that his guests are there, and always happy you are there, too. But his opening bit revealed just how much Fallon and his staff understand the power—and not just the authenticity—of Jimmy’s ultimate-nice-guy persona: They sold the hell out of it.
The opening bit was also a great way to avoid—or at least not to lead with—the one late night skill Fallon is not particularly good at: the monologue. (Jimmy’s a song and dance man: His show, held down by the Roots, is best when it’s a variety show.) After introducing himself, Fallon bopped back on stage to do some jokes—all Olympics related—but he got to keep this section short, before moving on to what he does better: being really adorable and jazzed with celebrities.
At his new desk for the first time, Fallon cracked that the friend who said he would never host The Tonight Show now owed him $100 bucks. This cued a parade of famous people coming to slap $100 down on his desk: Robert De Niro, Tina Fey, Joe Namath, Rudy Giuliani, Mariah Carey, Tracy Morgan, Joan Rivers, Kim Kardashian, Seth Rogen, Mike Tyson, Lindsay Lohan, Lady Gaga, and Stephen Colbert. At some point this stopped being a joke and became a smiling, tedious show of force: Look at all these famous people endorsing the new host of The Tonight Show! No, really, look at them. (Points to Fallon, though, for having Joan Rivers on his very first episode, the first time she’s appeared since Carson banned her in the late ’80s.)
Fallon made a few nice tweaks to the standard Tonight Show structure. He came back from the first commercial break with his and Will Smith’s “History of Hip-Hop Dance,” the show’s sure-thing viral video, instead of waiting to use it during their interview. He also inserted U2’s musical performance—on the roof, at sunset—into the middle of the show, instead of saving it for the end. (More impressive to me than all those celebrities: the willingness on the part of U2 and all those fans to brave the frigid Manhattan weather for the sake of Jimmy Fallon.) His interviews with Smith and U2—Fallon didn’t risk skewing too young in his debut—were good-natured and meandering and not particularly interesting, until U2 performed an acoustic song on Fallon’s couch. At the end of the episode, everyone on stage stood up and cheered. Fallon and his guests all seemed very, very happy to be there. If The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon promised one thing, it’s that everyone involved always will be.