Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Tonight Show’ Still Has a Long Way to Go

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No one is more excited about The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon than Jimmy Fallon. I suppose that’s true of all late-night hosts and their respective shows, but there’s something different with Fallon. His visible excitement is what drives the The Tonight Show, and, combined with Fallon’s likability, it keeps the show interesting and fun to watch even during the duller moments.

There haven’t been that many dull moments, though. Granted, this is its premiere week, so The Tonight Show pulled out the big guns and packed the episodes to the brim with famous names: Jerry Seinfeld, Kristen Wiig, Lady Gaga, Michelle Obama, and Will Ferrell, among others. (Tonight’s episode will feature Justin Timberlake.) Outside of the guest stars, Fallon did a good job, but it’s clear he still has a long way to go.

Fallon’s monologue was never the strongest segment of Late Night, and unfortunately this hasn’t changed. He has a nervous delivery, as most hosts do in the beginning, although I find it somewhat endearing (there’s that eternal criticism about Fallon’s tendency to break, but it works better for a host than it did for a sketch performer on Saturday Night Live). He got some mileage out of the Olympics and a few cheap shots at Rob Ford. For the most part, though, nothing stuck. Saying Fallon is “too nice” is a strange criticism, but that’s sort of the problem here. Fallon tends to take the easiest and cleanest route with his punchlines. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing (Leno was often criticized for his cruelness), it’s not going to put him above the rest of his counterparts. None of Fallon’s monologue jokes were memorable. It’s also as if he and his writers have yet to find a style that they want to go with — Leno and Letterman perfected a jokey harsh delivery, Conan often goes with silly and self-deprecating, but Fallon just goes for basic predictability.

Fortunately, Fallon doesn’t stretch out his monologue. A few quick jokes, maybe some silly graphics, and then he’s off to do the rest of the show. His celebrity interviews are hit or miss, depending on who is on the couch that night. Will Smith was amicable, Bradley Cooper was positively boring. Cooper’s interview showed the worst of Fallon, when he gets so engaged in praising a celebrity that he forgets he’s supposed to be hosting a show (Fallon went off on a tangent, confusingly trying to retell a scene from American Hustle, and no one seemed to know what he was talking about).

A highlight was Kristen Wiig’s appearance. She posed as Harry Styles — but a Styles who knew nothing of his own backstory, not even which country he’s from — and watching Wiig struggle to answer Fallon’s questions was the funniest the show was all week. They even ended with an adorable duet. Music is still an important part of the The Tonight Show, thankfully, because Fallon is certainly great at musical interludes and impressions.

In fact, there is a lot of spillover from Late Night, or at least a perfect amount to keep original Fallon fans tuning in night after night. These sketches were my favorite parts of each episode because they showed what Fallon is especially great at: coming up with original ideas and executing videos that will instantly go viral. Viewers may not quote his monologue or excitedly talk about celebrity interviews, but these sketches will definitely end up on every culture site and morning talk show the next day. This could prove to be a ratings problem in the long run — Fallon’s fans are young and internet-savvy; they know that they don’t have to watch The Tonight Show every night when they can just skip to the highlights on YouTube.

Nevertheless, Fallon created a handful of great videos this week: the Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing with Will Smith from the premiere episode, a barbershop quartet cover of R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” by the Ragtime Gals, and a perfectly edited video of Brian Williams rapping “Rappers Delight,” which I’d say is the best of the bunch.

Last night’s episode, which saw a ratings spike due to the appearance of First Lady Michelle Obama, featured two vastly different internet-ready videos. First, Obama joined Fallon and Will Ferrell in the recurring sketch “Ew!” Later, Ferrell performed a Downton Abbey-inspired Olympics skating routine.

Earlier this week, I worried about how Fallon’s celebrity games segments would translate to The Tonight Show, or if they would even happen. But Fallon didn’t give them up (and why would he?), so this week also featured a game of charades with Bradley Cooper, Emma Thompson, and Tim McGraw. It’s easy to see that this is where Fallon has the most fun: hanging out with his celebrity friends and playing games, inspiring jealousy in everyone watching.

First-week jitters aside, it was a good premiere week for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. There was nothing at all bad about the show, but, sadly, there was nothing surprisingly good about it, either. Jimmy Fallon has already proved himself as an adept host with Late Night — but expectations are heightened on The Tonight Show, and Fallon will have to raise the bar for himself if he wants to rise above his competition.