How Not to Get Fired From ‘The Tonight Show’: A Guide for Jimmy Fallon

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So it’s official: Jimmy Fallon, SNL character-breaker turned Late Night host, will take over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno next February. The handoff has been confirmed by NBC, Leno, and Fallon, who told the New York Times, “I have nothing but respect for Jay. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have a show to be taking over.” That’s a nice (if slightly inaccurate) bit of car-waxing from Mr. Fallon, who is wise to keep on the best possible terms with Mr. Leno, a man known for doing whatever it takes to hang on to Tonight. And with the outgoing host already making joking-but-not-really overtures that he’s not quite done yet (“Would I do it again? Believe me, the phone’s not ringing off the hook. It will be nice if people seem interested. But I’ll let it sit where it is”), and slightly ominous pronouncements about his expectations for his successor (“I would like to see Jimmy keep it at No. 1, which I’m sure he will”), Fallon’s gonna have to be very careful that Leno doesn’t end up repeating what he did to Conan and showing up behind the desk again nine months later. With that in mind, we’ve got a few suggestions that Jimmy might want to consider if he wants to keep Tonight.

To: Jimmy Fallon From: Jason Bailey RE: Action Steps for Keeping Tonight

1. Hang on to the Roots.

I’ll confess, Jimmy (if I may be so informal), when I first heard you were going to take over Late Night from Conan, I was skeptical. Truth be told, I was dumbfounded, having (I hate to say it) never been much of a fan. But I can pinpoint the exact moment when it became clear that you were a smart, savvy guy who wasn’t going to screw this up: when you announced that you’d hired The Roots as your house band. It was such a good get, such a masterstroke, that I realized I was going to watch the show whether I liked you or not — and the fact that the increasingly in-demand band has stayed on through your run thus far (instead of bolting for the door first chance they got, Branford Marsalis-style) indicates that they like being there and dig working for you. What’s more, the versatility and humor of Questo and the crew have made for not only the most vibrantly musical show in late night, but some of Late Night’s most memorable (and most viral) moments. I’m hoping that the much-publicized decision to keep broadcasting from New York was partly to keep them on, but seriously, do whatever it takes. Back a truck of Peacock money up to their door. Help Questlove finally get that date with Tamron Hall. Whatever. Keep them on the payroll.

2. Keep it weird — but not too weird.

Plenty of explanations were floated for Conan’s swift exit from Tonight — chief among them low ratings, though said ratings were due in no small part to Leno tanking the last hour of primetime five nights a week. But one that was harder to explain away was O’Brien figuring out how to make his show work an hour earlier. It’s no small consideration, especially since much of the audience that kept (against all common sense and common taste) making Jay number one in the time slot is, shall we say, a few years older than your current demo. So you’re gonna have to figure out how to keep doing the show you’ve developed at 12:35, but make it play to the people who don’t know what the hell a Twitter is. You’ve got the likability element down cold — older audiences love a nice boy like you. But as you’re figuring out what kind of material goes and what stays, here’s a suggestion: go back and watch Letterman’s first few shows for CBS. He’s made peace with his role as perpetual late-night runner-up, but don’t forget that for the first two years of his run, he beat Leno every night. And he did so because he had remade himself as a mature broadcaster, while maintaining the skewed humor that got him the gig in the first place. In other words…

3. Play to your strengths.

You’re coming in to a show where the host would regularly do an opening monologue that ran ten or more minutes. We all love your show, Jimmy, but it’s not like we’re repeating a lot of the monologue jokes the next day, or sending that Hulu video around. Taped pieces, music performances, desk bits, puppies — these are where you shine, so don’t feel like you’ve got to become a great monologist like Carson or (when he was a guest host, anyway) Leno. Not that there aren’t areas that could use a little improvement…

4. Get better at the interviews.

Jack Paar, the second host of Tonight, was one of television’s great conversationalists. So was Johnny Carson, who was uniquely gifted at getting his guests going and then staying out of their way — he wasn’t just a good talker, but a good listener as well. Leno never got this; he’s constantly interrupting with a bad one-liner or clumsy double entendre, and his interviews always seem badly over-prepared, almost scripted. Yours are a little better, but that’s not saying much; you still haven’t shaken the initial awkwardness at engaging a guest in something resembling a conversation in front of a studio and television audience. And it’s hard to create that illusion, in the sell-sell-sell atmosphere in which you’re getting most of your guests. But it can be done. Toss the cards. Keep the plugs minimal. Talk to the guests. And if you need some help with that…

5. Think about a sidekick.

Leno never had one, presumably because he couldn’t imagine sharing the spotlight with someone who wasn’t at least a bandstand’s distance away. And while you may not want to replicate Conan’s choices, bringing back Andy was genius — as Ed did with Johnny, the presence of a familiar face on the couch gives the host someone to work with when the guest is a dud, it creates a relationship that keeps the host human, and (particularly with Ed and Johnny) it gives the host an immediate, adoring audience. Plus, you’ve got immediate backup if a crazed, drunken Leno comes charging in to take his show back again. And to that end…

6. Put out a hit on Leno.

I kid — you shouldn’t actually put out a contract on Jay Leno. It’s a joke. (Wink.) No, seriously. You should in no way presume that the only way for Jay “I would like to see Jimmy keep it at No. 1, which I’m sure he will” Leno to actually walk away and stay away from The Tonight Show would be to arrange some sort of bodily harm to his person. It’s just a joke. Comic exaggeration! We are in no way endorsing the decision to reach out to a contract killer, even for the purpose of merely breaking a few bones or something, just to ensure that he’s actually not interested in “doing it again.” That would be barbaric! To say nothing of illegal — presuming it was actually traced back to the source, and not wisely brokered through some secondary, unconnected third party. Anyway, jokes! But seriously, he’ll never actually let it go, the end.