I can honestly tell you that I watched the very first Late Night with Conan O’Brien episodes. I cannot honestly tell you I remember much about them. In fact, watching Conan’s grand finale was a reminder the show started with a very different look and feel from how it ended.
If I remember anything, it was that Conan was a little awkward and you didn’t quite know what to make of the show after the first few nights.
Considering how things turned out for Conan — he’s now off to take the reigns of the The Tonight Show from Jay Leno, completing the succession David Letterman had wished for 16 years ago — that must mean Jimmy Fallon is off to a decent start.
The biggest thing to like about Late Night with Jimmy Fallon out of the gate is the tone. Yes, Jimmy made some bad-to-middlin’ movies, but we met him and know him for Saturday Night Live, where his chief accomplishment was creating, with Tina Fey, the best Weekend Update team since Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd (and until Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers who had a brief but glorious run). From the title sequence to the set, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon echoes SNL cool without overtly referencing it. And The Roots may have in a couple of nights become the best house band on late night TV, not only able to provide cool bumper music, but also able to be part of the jokes, starting right away with “slow jam the news.”
Fallon also brought in a great reminder of SNL glory on his first night with guest Justin Timberlake, who played along, reminiscing about the Barry Gibb Talk Show skit and also indulged a hilarious John Mayer impression. Fallon may have been much better off with Timberlake as a lead guest as opposed to Robert De Niro. Hey, we love De Niro, but Fallon spent his two segments with the man gushing all over him in a way that made for about 10 minutes of really awkward TV. Memo to Jimmy: You’re going to have famous people on your show, and you can be enthusiastic, but you can’t act like a kid who’s stood out in the rain for eight hours waiting for an autograph.
The primary purpose for the De Niro interview may have been joke fodder for the second night of the show as Fallon, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Fey all made fun of it. Night two definitely had a smoother flow with guests including Jon Bon Jovi, another guy who played well with SNL, and Fey. Fey and Fallon had a great chat that reminded us why we liked them together so much, though there was an interesting clip in that segment: Fey and Fallon’s first Weekend Update. The lame introductions certainly didn’t bode well for that partnership, and look what happened.
In late night, like many other pursuits, it’s not so much how you start, but how you finish.