The deposed Tonight Show host Conan O’Brien, currently hosting his own eponymous late-night show on TBS, has a signature dance. Before he delivers his nightly monologue, all 76 inches of him perform The String Dance: an abrupt, jerky series of motions resembling a kind of giant animatronic carrot top. The dance is uncomfortable, endearing, and completely pointless. It’s this mixture of charm and frivolousness that’s made O’Brien an irresistible figure in late-night television for two decades now—he is someone with little popular appeal but a firm grip on the unorthodox. His quirkiness has inspired a whole category of Conan-type hosts who thrive on the wacky.
One of those is Jimmy Fallon, the new host of The Tonight Show, and a more palatable option than O’Brien in this spot. O’Brien is the type of host you’d watch with your college friends, but he isn’t suited to your grandmother’s living room. Fallon is functional in both settings, particularly with your grandmother (“Don’t you just want to pinch Jimmy’s cheeks?”). He picks up on O’Brien’s ability to be weird for the sake of it, but his chief concern is his own likeability. His Tonight Show concludes its first week today after welcoming Will Smith, Jerry Seinfeld, Michelle Obama, and Will Ferrell, among others. The debut has been shakier than expected: The normally unassuming Fallon has already stumbled through several self-congratulatory and celebrity-obsessed episodes. He seems to be learning a lesson even the most bashful must endure: The harder you try to expose your own gratefulness and humility, the more self-serving it looks.
On late-night TV, there are limits to being nice. David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel have carved out their own spaces using an almost menacing dry wit. Craig Ferguson has made a name on a kind of jovial bewilderment, and O’Brien on a keen sense of irony. Jimmy Fallon is there to be pleasant and playful. His agreeableness is likely what makes him so successful: the first week of Tonight Show tapings has made one of its objectives to display how many “friends” Fallon has—how many celebrities are willing to come on the show and be flattered, or sometimes happily embarrassed. Fallon is likely the only late-night host capable of getting Scarlett Johansson to play a game of live charades against Drake. If only Fallon were this adventurous when it counted the most, like this week.
Monday’s debut featured a bizarre roster of tabloid stars, New Yorkers, and television colleagues congratulating Fallon for being Jimmy Fallon. There was Joan Rivers, Kim Kardashian, Lindsay Lohan, and Mike Tyson trotting out onstage, “stars” most famous now for their fame, or what little of it may be left. That’s not to say Fallon isn’t conscious of the more forward-looking parts of his show business: He came to late-night TV from Saturday Night Live, an institution that consistently identifies talented young comedy writers and performers. In a moment of self-awareness on Tuesday’s episode, he rightly dismissed one of his own jokes as being on par with Yakov Smirnoff’s humor.
Fallon has also been fascinated this week with the improbability of his success, something he could have figured out well before now, either as the host of the venerable Late Night or as a lead member of Saturday Night Live. The Tonight Show is still significant, but associating the image of the show with so much prestige almost makes the viewer forget that the previous host—Jay Leno—spent decades perfecting the art of being good at being bad. There’s a reason Fallon was brought to the rescue. He would be better off ignoring the pressure and diving right into his coy style of humor, reinventing the appeal of a still-popular but less reputable destination for smart comedy.
Instead, he’s let everyone around him tell him how great he is, and how important The Tonight Show is. Will Smith, Monday’s first guest, took the cake for the best gloat when, after being asked for advice on how to be famous, he told Fallon, “It can definitely get scary…but you just keep loving people… The thing is to make sure that with your art—your art is a gift to people to help their lives be better. What happens a lot of times is when you see people fail in this business—they’re in it for their ego, and they start doing it for them. And it’s like, no, you’re trying to help people!” The irony was almost too obvious to spot.
A day later, after Jerry Seinfeld delivered 10 minutes of smug technology jokes, he sat down with Fallon to talk about—what else—Jimmy Fallon. Fallon returned the favor, kissing the ring and praising an episode of Seinfeld’s online series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee in which Seinfeld and Jay Leno reminisce about how great they were as young comics, and how famous they are now. Late-night TV can be an exercise in marketing—promoting one’s new material or celebrating one’s place in American culture—but to give room to celebrities like Seinfeld to promote themselves doesn’t serve any purpose other than to highlight the goodwill bestowed on Fallon by his guests. In the long run, giving airtime to people like Seinfeld will be more of an albatross than a token of acceptance in the world of A-listers.
Surely Wednesday’s guest, the thoughtful Bradley Cooper, could save the day. Cooper may have been the most self-congratulatory of any guest this week so far, using up the first few minutes telling Fallon how honored he was to be with him, which in turn prompted Fallon to point out how Cooper is an “old friend of ours,” and it was really he who should be honored. The interview devolved into green room banter, a public exhibition of the celebrity insiderness of talk shows: Fallon at one point excitedly and incoherently recapped his favorite scene from American Hustle, in the “Remember that one scene…” style, letting Cooper soak in the adulation. With David O. Russell, the director of the film, in the crowd that night, Fallon made sure to tell Cooper that Russell is the “Martin Scorsese to your De Niro.” Cooper giggled and applauded. The studio audience sat mostly silent. The whole scene was reminiscent of a great Jimmy Fallon skit on Saturday Night Live.
Viewers of The Tonight Show aren’t looking for irony or shrewdness, alas, and Fallon knows that better than anyone. He can be delightfully silly and ingenuous, and often the sketches and bits on his show featuring him and his writers are as daring as they are funny. His game of charades with Cooper, Emma Thompson, and Tim McGraw on Wednesday was more than amusing, and the “child inventors” sketch from that same show, in which he invited teenagers to display preposterous devices they constructed, was Fallon at his most amiable.
His good-heartedness lets even the stiffest guests be comfortable playing along. He’s aware that nothing on television at midnight should be challenging, especially not to the bigger, more diverse audience he has to play to now. He may not have a String Dance or a mind as adventurous as Conan’s, but he still has his smile. His version of Tonight will work, if only because it won’t not.