'Tonight Show' Writers Share Stories Behind Recurring Segments, Donald Trump's Appearance

Ira James/NBC
The Ragtime Gals with Justin Timberlake

The team behind the Jimmy Fallon-hosted late-night show also talked about how their approach to show parodies has changed and the host's involvement in memorable moments.

New York Times reporter Dave Itzkoff began Saturday's Times Talks panel with the writers of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon by touching on the terrorist attacks in Paris that occurred the night before.

"This is, in many ways, a sad day as we're grieving for the tragic events that occurred in Paris last night, the lives that were lost," Itzkoff said, at the top of the event, hosted in collaboration with the New York Comedy Festival. "But I think it's also appropriate that we allow ourselves a break and we take this opportunity to celebrate a program that is so joyful and allows viewers even in tough times to go to sleep with smiles on their faces, so thank you guys for giving us that opportunity today."

And over the next hour, Itzkoff and Tonight Show producer and showrunner Josh Lieb, writer-producer Gavin Purcell, head writer A.D. Miles and writers Gerard Bradford and Mike DiCenzo took the audience at New York's Times Center behind the scenes on Fallon's Tonight Show and its antecedent, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, where they all worked before moving up to the earlier show with the host.

They shared the stories behind recurring segments like "Ew!" and Fallon's barbershop quartet, The Ragtime Gals, as well as how their tradition of parodying TV shows has evolved from recurring spoofs like "7th Floor West" (Late Night's take on The Hills) to one-off things like The Tonight Show's version of Empire, "Jimpire."

Speaking generally, Purcell said that Fallon wanted to have recurring things that would allow them to plan ahead and come up with more spontaneous things.

"Jimmy early on wanted to make sure that we had some recurring pieces so that we'd be able to come up with things on the spot but then also plan them out in the future," he explained. "'Ew!' is a much higher production thing. I think if we had to do something like that every day, our production staff would go insane. But the ability to kind of balance it out across a month, three months, six months, a year ... I think 'Ew!' maybe we do half a dozen times a year if that, maybe three or four times a year. That allows you to have a lot of variety in the show. Now we have [30 to 40] recurring segments ... It gives you a tool set to go to people with too."

In terms of when they do which bits, Lieb said there's no schedule or "science" to it.

"It's always what feels natural like, 'Oh we haven't seen that in a while' or 'Oh, I'm in the mood for that'," he said.

Fallon's teenage character, Sara, with her distinctive catchphrase came from a moment during the show's "Thank You Notes" segment in which a woman in the audience, in response to one of Fallon's notes, said "Ew!" much like his character does.

Fallon heard it, picked up on it, "repeated it and in that moment basically a character birthed," Miles explained.

After a clip of Fallon's "Ew!" segment with Seth Rogen and Zac Efron aired, the writers shared some of the stories behind that particular version of "Ew!," in which Miles was also a participant, as Fallon's character's stepdad, Gary.

Miles said the moment when Gary does the granola dance was supposed to be a short thing but Fallon let him keep going, with Miles saying, "You can see the glint in his eye."

Of the segment as a whole, DiCenzo said that Rogen and Efron are "really funny people and that character has evolved into one of our more popular characters on the show. And it's really funny to see a guy like Seth Rogen dress like a 15-year-old girl."

Purcell added that sketches involving guests are a way for movie actors to play other characters with a relatively minimal time commitment.

"Where else is Seth Rogen going to dress up like a girl and do something like that for a non-movie? It's a small commitment," Purcell said. "They're there for three hours and they get to have fun and then move on. That's a pretty cool opportunity."

As for The Ragtime Gals, who perform barbershop-quartet versions of pop songs, Miles struggled to remember the exact reasons for the origin of that bit but recalled, "I think we talked about doing maybe like a folk harmony group and I told Jimmy that I had been in a comedy version of a barbershop quartet … He loves doo-wop and doing the harmonies and Beach Boys and all that kind of stuff. He was like, 'We should just do a barbershop quartet.' He came up with the name, 'The Ragtime Gals,' because it was the least masculine thing we could name ourselves."

Miles, who's also in the Gals, admitted he doesn't look forward to the rigorous preparation for those performances.

"The only thing about those pieces is that they're so tricky that we get these learning tapes from the arranger, where your part is highlighted in the mix and you listen to it on a loop," Miles said. "I listen to it on a loop for like five days straight to where I don't even know the original song it's supposed to be parodying anymore. I just think of that as the song … It's nerve-wracking going into it; I hate it, but then after I'm like, 'We should do that again ... fun!'"

Miles and DiCenzo explained that Fallon was also the one who came up with memorable bits like "Two James Taylors on a Seesaw," which was just something he said in a creative meeting to his doubtful colleagues; "Tight Pants"; and the show's recent Lionel Richie "Hello" parody.

"He comes up with the craziest ideas just fully formed out of his brain and they're just weird, strange, beautiful ... It's like I don't know how someone's brain works like that," DiCenzo said.

Another thing they've come back to, although not in the same way they originally did, are parodies of popular TV shows. Initially, parodies like "7th Floor West" had story arcs and finales, the writers explained, and they ultimately realized that was too much and one or two parodies of a show is enough. They explained that they often work on those for months and film them over four or five nights after they're done taping the show.

While many guests want to participate in sketches or performances or play games, sometimes an interview is enough.

"We don't always have time [to play a game with everyone]," Lieb said. "If you look at the show you can already see that it's extremely jam-packed with crazy amounts of content. We'd love play a game with everybody every night. We just don't have time. Also not everybody wants to play a game. And the audience. We can't make everything a game because there is that comfort of seeing the host sit down and talk with Nicole Kidman, and the magic that comes out there and we have to give people that as well. It can't just all be charades."

Indeed, Kidman revealing in a recent interview that she was under the impression their first meeting, years ago, was a date is another one of the show's memorable moments.

Purcell said stories about the host have come out as they've done more episodes.

"Jimmy's there every night, so you're getting to know more and more about him," he said. "I think by the end of the time he's done, you'll know everything about him."

Fallon's Tonight Show has also become a popular show for presidential candidates to visit, and the writers said their approach to jokes about politicians is such that they don't have to watch what they say when the target is on the show.

"I don't think we ever bring anyone onto the show with the goal of skewering them. We really want you to have a good time when you come to the show. We're not really pulling punches as much as you wouldn't have punched them," Miles said.

Lieb added, "You don't want to make a joke that you couldn't make to their face."

One of the White House hopefuls who's stopped by is Donald Trump, with Miles saying that he did a "pretty good" job of reading his lines for his mirror sketch with Fallon.

"He just sat down. He hadn't seen the sketch before," Miles said of Trump. "He was just reading the cue cards, like, 'No, I look fantastic' and then he's like, 'So that's it, that's the whole sketch?' And we're like, 'No, there's a whole [thing]" … He added some Trump flourishes, which all helped."

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