By Nick Statt
As Jimmy Fallon wraps up his first week at Late Night, many die-hard fans of Conan O’Brien and his antics, which lasted 16 years at the 11:30 P.M. slot on ABC, are left to nit-pick and criticize the new host. Personally, I think he sucks. But looking at it in retrospect, who’s really fit to fill O’Brien’s shoes?
Conan O’Brien, after gaining an insanely dedicated fan base as the following act to Jay Leno, is finally stepping up to the plate he so wholly deserves: The Tonight Show. The one show every Johnny Carson fan drooled over for years, and the one show that Leno used to stomp his opponents in the ratings is being handed to the most lovable man in late night television; and it feels so right. Yet, at the same time, gnawing at the back of my mind is a bittersweet twinge concerning what O’Brien has ultimately to leave behind – his legacy. He knew it when he accepted the invitation that his old home would be thrown to the sharks of big-league network execs and that it would be up to them to decide who would don the late night mask and attempt to entertain viewers in the competitive hell that surrounds those time slots.
When news of Jimmy Fallon’s replacement of O’Brien hit the papers, I really didn’t know what to think. My thoughts of Fallon at the time involved a hyperactive SNL junkie who was only fit to take on personalities dramatically different than his own. After sitting through a week of watching his show, you really can’t help but tear the guy apart.
The very first episode was an utter disaster in terms of making the audience comfortable. Fallon failed to interview any of his guests genuinely, relying completely on what seemed to be pre-organized bits that just felt awkward and cheesy. Some of them garnered a few laughs, but the unfortunate downside was that they almost always involved his house band, The Roots. Yes, if you didn’t know before, you know now. Fallon’s house band is The freakin’ Roots. Settling down after years of being an incredibly talented and Grammy-nabbing hip-hop group, the Phili six-piece is taking on the house band role to catch their breath. They made for some hilarious bits, but as Conan O’Brien quickly discovered in his beginning years with The Max Weinberg 7, relying too much on the same joke can kill the charisma. Don’t get me wrong, it was funny when Fallon asked Questlove if he was acquainted with the term ‘bromance’ and even funnier when, on their first episode, Black Though repeated Fallon over some smooth instrumentals in a bit called “Slow-jamming the news.” But Fallon better not over-do it because it can be very easy to bore your audience with repetition, especially in the late night business.
As for Fallon himself, he just doesn’t seem to fit the part. In spite of Fallon’s probably nerves during his first week, his tone seemed off the whole time. Seeing him sitting behind a desk, wearing an honest-to-god suit, just made me smile and chuckle. I won’t go into too many specifics and just say that overall, Fallon’s performance felt too much like one of his SNL skits, with a sneering punch line that involves the audience actually taking the man seriously.
Despite my disapproval of Fallon and his first week, I honestly can’t gripe about the choice. In the realm of charismatic personalities, I can’t think of anyone who could fill the shoes of Conan, mainly because in the end it doesn’t really matter. Some say that Jon Stewart should have been given the offer, or a more notable comedian with the rating-swaying power of a guy like Demetri Martin. The argument is trivial though. Fans of Late Night watched it not because it was Late Night, but because of the name tagged on the end. O’Brien is moving on and so will his viewers and his replacement will spawn their own supporters and critics. Fallon happened to be that guy and the end result of any criticism can be met with a simple statement: just don’t watch’ em. I intend to take my own advice, and it’ll be easy in the realm of television where the press of button tears down what was there and rebuilds a new entertainment-hungry center. Until Conan hits TV sets this summer, I’ll watch Jimmy Kimmel or read a book or something. The rest is up to the critics.