Jimmy Fallon: A Strong First 'Tonight Show' Belies the Long Wait Ahead For Late Night Dominance

He's likable and, equally important, liked by the people who will be his guests. But "The Tonight Show" faces a real struggle in its transition to a new host.
Lloyd Bishop/NBC
Jimmy Fallon took over "The Tonight Show" on Monday night.

Now that Jimmy Fallon has his first night of hosting The Tonight Show under his belt, what can he expect?

To come back tomorrow and do it again. That's all. This premiere night and even his entire premiere week will really answer nothing ratings-wise (though that won't stop the stories from coming). The first few weeks may not yield any hard evidence, either. The early numbers should be big; the only revealing bit of information from them will be if they aren't big. (If that's the case, look out.) Fallon's getting a boost from the Winter Olympics and a very impressive, thorough bit of advanced publicity planning to make people who don't really know him sit up and take notice. In this honeymoon phase, fans of Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show are going to give this kid Fallon the once-over.

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In a few weeks, we'll all know better whether they stayed, and whether Fallon's Late Night fans stayed as well. It will be an interesting litmus test, not only for Fallon but for what could be antiquated notions about late night and the audience that participates in it.

Here's why: The Johnny Carson days are long gone. The patina is off the sheen of being The Tonight Show host. A glut of hosts as television expanded is mostly responsible for that, but the Leno-Conan O'Brien fiasco didn't help, either. There is no narrative now about hallowed tradition. All Fallon represents is another guy at 11:30 p.m. (or, in tonight's instance, midnight).

What's more significant is the built-in, long-term Leno fan base. They didn't show much love for O'Brien, and that reluctance at least in part opened the door for NBC to rethink the entire idea. Why would that audience believe it's any different this time? (And yes, NBC, this is what you created -- not anybody else.) Even though Leno seemed mostly to play by the script, it will be interesting to see if his fans decide to throw their support behind Fallon or, after a week of checking him out, bail out. They might be thinking another Hail Mary comeback is possible.

That will mean Fallon's loyal audience needs to shift down an hour. Will they? If they know that they can find all of his good bits online the next day, maybe after the initial week or so they'll stick to their more natural pattern and simply watch Seth Meyers on Late Night. Part of viewing is habit. We'll see how that shakes out.

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Another factor is the nature of comedy itself. Funny is relative. Yes, Fallon is a lot softer-edged than either David Letterman or Jimmy Kimmel, but his brand of comedy is completely different than Leno's. (By the way, do not underestimate the fact that ABC gave Kimmel a running start on this 11:30 time slot. Creatively, Kimmel is the new king of late night -- he's been on a very long roll that isn't likely to let up.) For Fallon, the question about his humor is, what will translate? If, out of habit, Leno's viewers want something to watch before going to bed, they may shift elsewhere if Fallon's idea of funny doesn't hook them (although, admittedly, that notion suggests that Letterman's and Kimmel's wouldn't either; they could always just go to sleep).

As for this first night, I doubt Fallon could have done a better job. He booked Will Smith, an across-the-board fan favorite. The musical guest (and sit-down-to-chat participants as well) was U2. Ditto on the wide appeal. Both showed a lot of love for Fallon -- and that's really what it will take to win in the old-school Tonight Show way. People need to know that the host is beloved and respected. They need to like him. Seeing other people like him doesn't hurt. Smith astutely observed that, yes, The Tonight Show is a big deal, but "People are coming because of your heart."

That couldn't be more true, because it's the ultimate Fallon hook. He doesn't offend. He's nice. He's happy. He likes to make fun of himself and spoof things without cruelty. He is, in many ways, a better fit than O'Brien (whom I love dearly -- I just never thought the job would suit him, because its relevance had changed through the years and really wasn't the ideal vehicle for what O'Brien himself had grown into).

Those "people" Smith mentioned included a long line of celebrities who came out to complete a bit where Fallon told the crowd that one of his best friends owed him $100 for saying he would never host The Tonight Show. Out came that friend (it appeared), followed by a long string of celebrities including Tina Fey, Lady Gaga, Joan Rivers, Rudy Guliani, Sarah Jessica Parker and Stephen Colbert.

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It was an easy and effective way to show newcomers that, hey, Fallon will be able to pull in the guests. More important was the notion that he's liked. Adding to that, Spike Lee himself shot the show's new opening.

A lot worked from this first show. The set looks great, and legendary house band the Roots were, as usual, flawless. When U2 asked them, impromptu, to join in their acoustic jam from the couch, they didn't miss a beat, and the up-tempo atmosphere told the audience one clear thing: Hey, this is fun. You might want to come back and check it out again.

But Fallon himself made the most important gesture of the evening when he came out and basically introduced himself to the world. You can't put enough exclamation points on how important and smart that was. It's such a simple and ego-less thing: Tell people who may not know who you are. If they're going to spend time with you -- and barring the Conan debacle, nobody has been there but Leno for a really long time -- they want to know something about you. Fallon talked about being from New York, how lucky he was to have been on Saturday Night Live and then The Tonight Show. He introduced his parents. He was humble and sincere. He said hosting the show was important, fun and exciting. He never once seemed to be reading off a card. "It just means a lot to me," he said. "I hope I do well."

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He certainly could. But we're going to have to wait a bit to be absolutely certain. In the meantime, I'm truly interested in this idea of audience displacement and what impact it might have. Imagine that you're a die-hard Leno fan who has been loyally watching The Tonight Show for years, and you're not too keen on Jay being ousted while still No. 1. Do you watch or boycott? If you watch but don't like Fallon, what then? What if a significant block of viewers expecting a certain style of comedy, a certain way to be entertained before bed every night, decides they aren't getting it anywhere at that time? Do they fade away? Do they go to bed and never come back? If they do, will the same number of Fallon acolytes take their place?

We won't know that for a few weeks. But it's definitely worth knowing. If Leno is truly out of the game for good, then the game may be changed in a way it hasn't in a lot of years.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine