Jimmy Fallon, 'Tonight Show' Writers on Coming Up With Ideas for Sketches With Politicians, Other Guests

"The guests just trust us," the host said at a WGAE panel on Thursday night, with writer Gerard Bradford adding, "I think they know when they come on our show, we're going to make them look good."
NBC/Andrew Lipovsky
From left: Jimmy Fallon, A.D. Miles, Jon Rineman, Caroline Eppright, Mike DiCenzo, Gerard Bradford and Albertina Rizzo

Since beginning his run as host of NBC's The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon has gotten most of the Saved by the Bell cast to reprise their roles for a short sketch set in the halls of Bayside High, enlisted The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air's Alfonso Ribeiro to do Carlton's signature dance and, just the other night, convinced Madonna to perform one of her early hits, "Borderline."

So how does he get stars to revisit iconic, fan-favorite moments from their past that might now make them cringe?

"I think they know that it's coming from love," Fallon said in response to an audience question to that effect at a Writers Guild of America East panel featuring his Tonight Show writers on Thursday in New York. "We really love pop culture and we embrace it on our show. No one looks bad on our show, and I think people trust us."

For the Madonna performance, the host indicated he convinced her to play his "favorite song."

"You think she sang that enough in her life? She was like, 'Really, 'Borderline'?' And I was like, 'Please do 'Borderline' — it's my favorite song!' And she goes, 'I'll do 'Borderline' for you.' The guests just trust us," said Fallon. "We want to put on the best show possible that we can squeeze into an hour."

Fallon says his sincere fandom also helped get Neil Young to agree to a duet of "Old Man," explaining that he made it clear that he knows Young's music and Young is a fan of his impression, recalling that the rocker joked he didn't need to do interviews anymore because Fallon's version of him is so good. The host also teased that he just did another bit with Young that he called "so surreal" and "loosely based on" last year's well-known "Two James Taylors on a Seesaw" musical sketch (more on that later).

Since debuting on the late-night scene in 2009, Fallon has become known for getting his guests — first on Late Night and then on The Tonight Show — to participate in memorable sketches and games that have gone viral. On Thursday night, Fallon and six of his writers (A.D. Miles, Jon Rineman, Caroline Eppright, Mike DiCenzo, Gerard Bradford and Albertina Rizzo) explained how those bits come about and teased a few coming up. The panel discussion, in which Fallon served as moderator, was hosted by the WGAE and took place in The Tonight Show's 30 Rock studio, with guild writers in the audience and Fallon and his team on the set.

The Tonight Show episode that aired on Thursday night was the one with Madonna and President Barack Obama, which taped the night before, so Fallon and Co. had taped Friday's show, with Ryan Seacrest and Cedric the Entertainer, on Thursday and also pre-taped a bit with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, they said.

Even though The Tonight Show doesn't often tape that far ahead of time, it still requires a lot of advance planning to deliver a topical hourlong program five nights a week.

Fallon said he and the writers typically find out the guest lineup about two or three weeks out from when the show airs and if they know the guest is open to sketch ideas, they'll solicit pitches from writers.

"We'll say we need a pitch for Dwayne Johnson and the writers will all email in pitches," DiCenzo explained. "They can be sketches or games or whatever and then we'll bring in a bunch to [Fallon] and [he decides] which ones [he likes] the best and we'll send those to Dwayne and his team of people and they'll pick their favorite." That sort of collaborative approach also takes place with the show's games as the staff comes up with possible things to act out during a round of charades or the bizarre objects in the "Box of Lies" boxes.

"Usually things like that where there are a lot of variables, we send [an email] out to everyone and everybody sends in everything they can think of and we end up with a big list and whittle it down from there," said Miles. "It's a total group effort."

Though the sketches and games are a distinct part of Fallon's late-night brand, he stressed that he's totally cool with just interviewing a guest if they don't want to do a sketch or a game.

"I love the business. I really do love it," he said.

That note led Fallon to reflect on how he often gets criticized for his enthusiasm towards his guests, with people saying, "Oh, my God, you love everything!" But he said it's genuine.

"I kind of do," he said. "I'm rooting for us. Without these [actors], if their movie doesn't work, we wouldn't have a movie star and if their TV show doesn't work we don't have a TV star. I know how much work goes into making a movie; it's insane. Not only writing it but rewriting it and then spending four months filming it, three months editing and six months promoting it. That's a year of your life. Even if I don't love the movie, I appreciate the work that went into it."

In addition to movie and TV stars, Fallon's Tonight Show has also become a popular destination for presidential candidates, with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both making multiple appearances on the late-night show. Obama's appearance was the President's first on the Fallon-hosted Tonight Show, but he previously made an appearance on Fallon's Late Night in 2012.

The host said during the WGAE panel that he felt as if he should apologize to Obama for making fun of him for eight years.

"He's the only president that we've known since we started late night, so he's in every one of our monologues, like it or not," Fallon pointed out.

But the POTUS, like all of the show's political guests, has been a good sport about it, even if the day of their appearance the monologue has a few jokes about them in it.

"That's our job to skewer the news and make you laugh before you go to sleep and put a smile on your face. I think everyone gets it," Fallon added, lamenting the missed opportunities when they're dark. "We're in a great time now with so much material. When we have a week off, we get so angry because you go, 'Aaah, we could have done that! Trump, why? Anthony Weiner's back?! We've got to come back. Let's Periscope a show.'"

During Obama's appearance, Fallon still took a few shots at the commander-in-chief, joking that he now has to carry around his birth certificate to "prove he's only 54," after which the president pretended to be angry as he grabbed the next card during their "Thank You Notes" segment.

Fallon even went for a Clinton email joke, thanking the presumptive Democratic nominee for possibly becoming the first "f president. I would have said 'female,' but someone deleted the 'emale.'" During the WGAE panel, Fallon said the joke made him laugh but he sensed President Obama, who was sitting next to him at the time, didn't appreciate it. "It started to feel a little warm," Fallon said, before pointing out, in his Obama impression, that the President then said, "I'm not sure this was a good idea."

Clinton herself participated in a memorable sketch featuring Fallon's Trump impression when she made a September appearance on the show.

Writing a sketch with a politician in it isn't necessarily harder than it is coming up with one featuring an entertainer, the Tonight Show writers said.

"If a joke is funny, it's funny. We don't really take cheap shots at politicians or anything," said Bradford. "I think they know when they come on our show, we're going to make them look good. They'll laugh at themselves, too."

But there is one thing they have to be careful about. Due to the equal-time rules, Fallon said, they can't do sketches where, for instance, the politician plays a teacher and he plays the student.

"You have to somehow frame it as an interview in the sketch. We secretly did that, sort of snuck it in," he pointed out before showing the clip of the Clinton sketch where she gets a call from Fallon's Trump, with her Republican rival offering her some advice. Fallon said his favorite part of the sketch is when his Trump tells Clinton to write down his advice and she says "let me grab my pen" and instead picks up a glass of wine and takes a sip.

Fallon also recalled that his staff once had a debate party at Jay Z's 40/40 Club and that it wasn't nearly as much fun as they thought it would be, with one of the guys working there saying it was "the lamest party he'd ever been to."

Fallon and his writers sat around a giant TV and noted what seemed interesting from the Fox News debate as the sound came out of giant speakers typically used to blast dance music.

"It was an awful idea," he said.

Another idea that may have sounded crazy in concept proved to be memorable and amusing: two James Taylors on a seesaw, which Fallon's writers have previously noted came out of just something the host said in a meeting one day.

Fallon sang the first line on the spot, "I go up and you go down," and DiCenzo went home and wrote the rest, recording the song on his iPhone and sending it to his boss.

On Thursday, Fallon praised DiCenzo for coming up with a "funny and ridiculous" but "beautiful" song that's "really deep."

"You should win a Grammy for the line, 'I will see what you just saw,'" he added.

During Taylor's appearance, Fallon said that the singer, who was dressed like his younger self, quipped of his past drug use, "I have this sudden crave for heroin."

"I go, 'No! No, we can't do that,' Fallon said.

But he does make sure to pay attention to the details, which is something he learned from working for Lorne Michaels on Saturday Night Live.

For instance, if they do a party scene, Fallon notes, there should be a half-eaten bowl of chips on the set.

"That's something no one else will know, but we'll know," he said.

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