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Jimmy Fallon and his Tonight Show staff embark on the high-wire act of two live shows following the first Democratic presidential primary debates Wednesday and Thursday.
Political satire is not exactly Fallon’s métier; and this is the first time he has done a completely live show hooked to a major political event. Other late night programs including Late Show With Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah’s Daily Show went the live route during the tumultuous 2016 political season, but not until the conventions. But as politics has dominated the national water cooler conversations during the Trump administration, it has become impossible to ignore. This time Late Show, Daily Show and Late Night with Seth Meyers will also be live on Wednesday and Thursday.
“There are certain topics and events that break out of a particular bucket,” Tonight Show executive producer Jim Bell tells The Hollywood Reporter. “This isn’t strictly a political event as it is a pop culture event. People will be talking about whatever the social media meme moment is, did somebody have a faux pas? We want to be timely and topical, and reacting to what’s happening during the day.”
Fallon and his time-slot competitor Colbert have been in a tight ratings race of late. While Colbert long ago surpassed Fallon among total viewers, the CBS program has more recently become competitive among the 18-49 demographic coveted by television advertisers. Fallon did edge out Colbert in the demo for the week ending June 21, but Colbert, who is deeply steeped in political satire, has enjoyed the momentum in the late-night race.
Fallon and his team of writers will watch the debates together in the writers room; there are 35 minutes between the time the debates wrap at 11 p.m. and the Tonight Show starts. So they will be crashing Fallon’s monologue. The rest of the show will be a mix of guests (Daisy Ridley and Colin Quinn on Wednesday, and Nicki Minaj and Phoebe Robinson on Thursday) and taped bits. On Wednesday, for instance, Fallon and Millie Bobby Brown and the cast of Stranger Things prank museumgoers at Madame Tussauds. (Minaj’s interview also will be taped earlier in the evening.) Both nights will also feature musical guests during the final act; Little Big Town on Wednesday and Julia Michaels on Thursday. The crew will need to set up for the bands during a single commercial break — no mean feat. So it will be the first and last acts that present the most creative and logistical challenges, respectively.
“That’s not going to be easy,” says Bell referring to the musical guests. “At Saturday Night Live, for example, they have different stages. We’re going to have an interesting challenge on our hands to make sure the band is sound-checked and ready.”
The volatile and breakneck pace of the political conversation — when news seemingly happens around the clock — has thrown many late nights shows for a loop. Scrapping or adjusting monologues right before shows begin taping is common. For Fallon and the Tonight Show staff, the seed of the idea to go live after the first Democratic debates — which will air on NBC — was first germinated around this year’s State of the Union address. At that time, the government was shut down and Trump and House leader Nancy Pelosi where engaged in a game of brinksmanship over whether Pelosi would even invite Trump to the House chamber to deliver the annual speech. Fallon did a live monologue, while the rest of the show was taped earlier in the evening as usual. “I think it was very energizing for the staff and crew and Jimmy and the writers to go through that exercise,” notes Bell.
This time, both shows will be entirely live. So everything — interviews, bits, monologues — must adhere to strict time codes. Of course, Fallon has much experience doing live TV as a veteran of SNL. But he’s also gone live on the Tonight Show, including two post-Super Bowl shows. Bell did not rule out additional live shows tied to the 2020 political season. But viewers should not expect a full-scale pivot from Fallon. “We’re going to hopefully tell some good jokes, relive whatever the interesting moments were in the debate. And then we’d like to think we’re going to give people a much-needed relief from the arena of politics and get back to doing what Jimmy really is terrific at, which is making people laugh.”
Asked how Fallon is dealing with the pressure of crashing a political-themed monologue, Bell jokes: “He’s in the fetal position under his desk as we speak.”
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