When Jimmy Fallon took over from Conan O’Brien as the host of Late Night in 2009, he was awkward and giddy, prone to babbling and giggling through his monologues and celebrity interviews. Five years later, anointed the new king of late-night TV as the host of The Tonight Show (O’Brien himself having famously flamed out as Tonight host after only eight months), Fallon is still awkward and giddy and prone to babbling and giggling, although at this point it’s part of his charm. In that way, Fallon is probably a better fit to take over for longtime Tonight Show host Jay Leno than O’Brien ever was, because his comedic style is, like Leno’s, resolutely middle-of-the-road, completely inoffensive and celebrity-friendly.
Fallon’s first week as Tonight Show host was so celebrity-friendly that much of it just involved Fallon fawning over how awesome his guests are, and the guests talking about how awesome it is that Fallon is now the host of The Tonight Show. One bit during the first episode literally featured a steady stream of celebrities just walking onstage and being acknowledged, sometimes not even saying a word. Late-night talk shows aren’t generally known for hard-hitting interviews, but Fallon’s peers can still often elevate the standard promotional stops, whether that’s David Letterman showing his contempt for the whole process or Craig Ferguson abandoning the pretense of promotion and just having a warm conversation.
Fallon’s contribution involves incorporating his guests into various comedy bits, and those are the highlights that typically end up passed around on social media the next morning. In the first week, it was Will Smith joining Fallon for “Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing,” Will Ferrell and Michelle Obama (yes, the First Lady) in a terrible teen-girl sitcom parody called “Ew!” (complete with awkward plugs for Obama’s physical-fitness initiatives) or Justin Timberlake dueting with Fallon on the latest installment of their “History of Rap” series. Fallon delivers pretty standard-issue topical jokes during his monologue, no edgier or more daring than what Leno did, but the sketches and musical numbers (backed by his always excellent band The Roots) are his greatest strengths.
Fallon is genuinely likable, and he creates a relaxed atmosphere for his guests, an important skill as a talk-show host. Even if the conversations are excessively banal, people who tune in to watch famous people being chummy will probably enjoy the majority of Fallon’s Tonight. For everyone else, it’ll be enough to catch up with the highlights online the next day.