Jimmy Fallon Had a Great First Night — But Can He Keep Leno’s Fans Without Alienating His Own?

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Last night, Jimmy Fallon started his new gig as host of NBC’s The Tonight Show, taking over for Jay Leno. All eyes were on Fallon for a number of reasons: The Tonight Show is a beloved establishment on NBC, people were a little hesitant after the Conan O’Brien/Jay Leno late-night war, and there was the question of whether Fallon’s brand of humor would translate to an earlier time slot. The biggest concern, as always, was ratings. According to Nielsen, yesterday’s Tonight Show averaged a 7.1 in overnight household ratings (estimated total viewers haven’t been released yet, but it’s expected to be in the vicinity of 10 to 11 million). To put this in context, it’s much higher than Fallon’s previous 4.8 high on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, predictably lower than Leno’s most recent exit on February 6 (9.2), and, oddly enough, tied with O’Brien’s Tonight Show debut back in 2009.

These are pretty strong ratings (though not as strong as NBC would have hoped), especially when you take into consideration that, because of the Olympics, the show premiered a half-hour later than it normally would have. However, the ratings are also expected to drop after this week — not because of Fallon’s performance, but because that’s the norm for late night programs (and most premieres in general). It’s the curiosity ratings boom: people tune in to check out a new program and then fail to return a week later. Still, it won’t be surprising if ratings drop off and critics put the blame solely on Fallon — even if that would be completely unfair.

Fallon did a fine job last night and put out a fun hour of television, an hour that really showcased his sincerity and the strides he has made as a host since he first landed Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in 2009. He was funny and charming, and his enthusiasm was contagious. He introduced himself to the audience, had an OK first-night monologue (this has never been his strongest suit), paraded out an impressive list of guest stars, gushed over U2, and performed a hilarious “Evolution of Hip-Hop Dances” sketch with Will Smith that was primed to go viral. It was less low-key than we’re used to Fallon being, but it definitely worked as a glimpse of what to expect from this new Tonight Show.

Still, Fallon will most likely find himself struggling to achieve the ratings Leno had (though it’s definitely worth noting that his premiere episode was rated higher than the average of Leno’s penultimate Tonight Show week). This is another problem that shouldn’t be attributed to Fallon specifically, because historically, late-night hosts have a built-in audience, not late-night programs.

In 2009, when Conan O’Brien temporarily took over The Tonight Show, he debuted to high ratings that dropped off after the first week. After a month, he began to lose overall viewers — but they were Leno’s viewers he was losing, not his own. For much of his brief Tonight Show run, O’Brien would regularly blow Letterman out of the water when it came to the most coveted television demographic: ages 18-49. O’Brien had always been a star among the college kids and teens who stayed up late to catch a bit of Late Night. Late Night worked because the host was weird and fun and it aired at collegiate prime time, 12:35 in the morning, the perfect slot for stoners to watch in dorm common rooms. 11:35 is too early for the younger crowd — they’re still at the bar.

Leno succeeded at the 11:35 time slot for such a long time because his established fanbase consisted of an older crowd that really responded to his jokes and brand of comedy. To say that Leno “played it safe” may come off as an insult, but it really isn’t. He was never known for really shaking things up (at least not on screen), but that is exactly what worked for him — and for his longtime viewers. He delivered a solid monologue every night (though I’ve never been the prime audience for Leno’s humor, even I can admit that he knew what he was doing) and he brought on the sort of guests who appealed to his older, middle-American audience. He made fun of items on eBay, mocked unintelligent strangers on the street, and pointed out celebrity lookalikes. He was blandly funny and it worked.

For many of Leno’s longtime viewers, O’Brien must’ve come as a culture shock. They were used to segments where Leno joked about the newspaper; Conan liked to put Andy Richter in flaming bras and blow up wax figures of Tom Cruise. It was, by all accounts, very classic O’Brien humor — so his fans from Late Night followed him to this earlier time, while Leno fans felt alienated and switched to CBS, where they knew they would get jokes catered a little more to their sensibilities.

That’s the worry with Jimmy Fallon’s version of The Tonight Show. I think the premiere was a great debut, and so did many others I’ve talked to, but we all have one thing in common: we were already Fallon fans from Late Night. Fallon is a unique host. He definitely has the enthusiasm and the charm, but he’s also zanier than his counterparts (not overall as strange as O’Brien yet definitely prone to some wonderful oddball moments). He’s the first late-night host to really understand the way the internet works and to actually use it regularly on air without those moments resembling the way grandparents struggle to use a computer. He’s big on music parodies, drinking games, and nostalgia. It’s hard to picture Leno’s crowd getting on board with Saved by the Bell reunions and celebrity beer pong tournaments.

Yet these are all sketches that worked extraordinarily well for Fallon during Late Night, and that really resonated with the younger 18-49 crowd. They’re perfectly suited to late-night college kids because they’re the same sort of ideas that you’d come up with late at night during college: “Wouldn’t it be funny if Obama sang a slow jam with The Roots or we played beer pong with Betty White?” Fallon and his writers thought this, too, and then they actually did it.

The balance that The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon has to strike is somehow retaining Leno’s loyal viewers (who may be tempted to click over to Letterman when Fallon starts singing Carly Rae Jepsen covers) without alienating fans from Late Night who are hoping this earlier time slot won’t end Fallon’s habit of drinking beers with his celebrity guests. The debut episode managed to accomplish both, though unfortunately not by much. It’s clear that the guests (U2, who performed once on a roof and then on the couch, and Will Smith, who is universally liked by every human being of any age) were deliberately chosen to help ease Leno’s Middle-American fans into this change. (This is a smart move because many of NBC’s problems with O’Brien had to do with his bookings — he refused to book Sarah Palin when they wanted him to and instead had guests like Norm McDonald, beloved by Late Night fans but confusing to outsiders.) However, the hip-hop sketch with Will Smith and bits like Stephen Colbert dumping a bucket of pennies all over Fallon and declaring, “Welcome to 11:30, bitch” were reminders that Fallon isn’t totally going to change. The question that remains is whether he can continue to please both crowds — and the bigwigs at NBC — enough to stick around for a while.