As we come up on Jimmy Fallon’s one-year anniversary as host of The Tonight Show, it’s probably about the right time to share my perspective on how the late night program and its host have changed. And here it is:
I think The Tonight Show is really a daytime talk show parading around in late night.
Hold on, hold on. Let me explain a bit.
First, I love Fallon. His Tonight Show is infectious, and he is one of the most likable late night hosts in recent memory. I would readily compare him with Johnny Carson. He’s cut from the same cloth. Needle sharp, born funny and alarmingly charming.
Second, It’s safe to say his version of Tonight has rejuvenated late night television, too. Few would question the dearth of late night viewers even just two or three years ago. By late September 2014, The Tonight Show and Late Night with Seth Meyers were pounding Jay Leno’s Tonight ratings and its weaker lead-in to Fallon’s Late Night.
(Over on ABC, Jimmy Kimmel Live has steadily increased ratings while CBS’s Late Show and Late Late Show were in decline, according to a September 2014 Variety report. Is it any wonder David Letterman decided it was time to retire and Ferguson moved to daytime?)
So what’s the dif?
Let’s go back to Carson. Like Fallon, Carson could charm an audience with a smile and a wink. Celebrities warmed to his interview style. Comedians longed for his approval. Fallon is all these things, though I would substitute musical acts for comedians.
But Carson’s sense of humor was wicked. It was sharp and pointed. He could easily dish an underhand comment to an unruly or troublesome guest. Sometimes to a guest he felt just couldn’t keep up with him, too. Letterman, in many ways, is cut from this same cloth.
Fallon’s not. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s more than perfectly fine. As a guy who is regularly criticized as being “too nice,” I get it and respect Fallon’s feel good nature.
That difference, though, makes for a different kinda late night. The show, out of the 11:30 p.m. hour, is more akin to a daytime show.
Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe I get that vibe because Fallon’s Tonight Show reminds me of The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Fallon and DeGeneres both enjoy engaging their guests in party games – charades, lip syncing contests, Never Have I Ever and what seems like countless board games.
In a way, this style of interactivity was made popular by DeGeneres and has popped up on many a daytime show for time to time. And now it’s become a mainstay on Tonight.
Wrong? Heaven’s no. It’s perfectly fine.
It’s just. Well, it’s just that today’s Tonight would work just as well during the day. Because it doesn’t carry that same late night edge I’m used to. The edge Stewart delivers. The edge Handler handle. The edge Letterman made famous.
There’s the rub. The Tonight Show isn’t edgy. And it used to be the definition of edgy. Paar was edgy, Carson edgy. Leno a bit, but in an entirely different way. Fallon doesn’t have that edge.
But after decades of edge, maybe it’s time we smooth things out anyway.