NEW YORK — After his fans in the studio audience roared their welcome on his penultimate Late Night show last week, Jimmy Fallon reminded viewers at home they had just seen Jay Leno say his second (and probably final) goodbye on the Tonight Show.
"Bummer; I liked that guy," Fallon said of Leno's second forced exit, after a 22-year run. But "in a way, it's good for me."
That's an understatement. On Monday, Fallon becomes TheTonight Show's sixth host in its 60-year run, and returns the show to New York (his idea) for the first time since Johnny Carson moved West in 1972.
Last week was discombobulating: Fallon flew to L.A. to be one of Leno's final guests on Monday, sending a clear message that this transition was smoother than the 2009 hand-off to Conan O'Brien. On Wednesday, he began taping test shows in his new Tonight studio in New York, but Thursday returned to Late Night for the first of two final episodes.
Fallon, 39, is a marked contrast to O'Brien, who for six months fulfilled his own dream of inheriting Tonight in 2009, only to bolt when NBC sought to return Leno to his old time slot. Fallon succeeded him as Late Night's host.
Where O'Brien exudes witty sarcasm and snark, Fallon is earnest, almost puppy-like in his unbridled enthusiasm and eagerness to please. He's a stand-up comedian who won fame in a six-year stint on Saturday Night Live, and met his wife, producer Nancy Juvonen, after leaving SNL in 2004 for a brief and unremarkable film career. (She works with Drew Barrymore, and produced their rom-com vehicle Fever Pitch, with Fallon as a rabid Red Sox fan.) The two had a daughter last year.
He excitedly offers a guided tour of Studio 6B, Carson's old home across the hall at 30 Rock from Late Night's. It's larger, with room for 50 or so more fans, and while Late Night had a grungy, urban vibe — and Leno's Burbank studio was filled with potted plants and paneling — the new backdrop is a series of miniature New York City landmarks, intricately carved in wood.
"This is a stage and an event and it's glamorous and it's elegant," he says. "It makes you feel like we're doing something really big here, and it's fun." Spike Lee directed a new opening sequence with Fallon prowling local neighborhoods and a revised theme song, so "now I'm in a Spike Lee joint."
But Fallon insists Late Night fans won't see much else that's different apart from his new time slot (midnight ET/PT next week during the Olympics, then 11:35 starting Feb. 24, when Seth Meyers replaces him on Late Night.)
"The show I'm doing now is the Tonight Show," he says in an interview in his comfortable office after taping his 968th Late Night. "We're not changing anything; the show will grow as I grow. We're just going to keep the best bits."
But already Fallon has honed his act. Leno advised him to expand his monologue, so he has. The new show will feature more video clips so he can riff on the news of the day. And "a lot of the dumber stuff that didn't work, that's a little sophomoric, will be gone. But we've kind of gotten rid of that over the last year." That includes what he insists is a final round of "bubble soccer" played last week on Late Night. "I hate that game."
But he embraces the show's heritage, dating back to its roots with Steve Allen in 1954, and the goofball antics that Carson perfected.
"I know college kids like us but we're kind of an old-fashioned variety show," he says. Sometimes I feel silly getting dressed up and doing a dumb bit, and then you watch Steve Allen and he's getting pie in the face, he's landing in a giant bowl of ice cream. He was doing this stuff way before Letterman did, in the '50s. I'm dressed like a giant celery stalk and I'm about to jump into a giant Bloody Mary and I'm like, 'Yeah, this is my job.' I have to do that, and I have to have an animal crawl up my arm and urinate on me.' I'm actually having a blast."
If he wasn't, "I don't know if NBC would be that excited to give me the Tonight Show. But I think they can tell that I'm still having fun with it and I'm happy and I want to keep doing it for a long time."
His once and future producer, Lorne Michaels, can tell, and calls his music, dance and comedy routines with Justin Timberlake, scheduled to appear next Friday, a modern-day variation on 1940s road movies with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.
"He's interested in what people have to say, and he likes people," Michaels says. And "he's very smart, but he has no need to show it, whereas most of the people I work with spend a lot of time on that."
NBC's former top programmer Warren Littlefield thinks "audiences will be quite comfortable" with the latest Tonight host. "He's Johnny-like in his appeal," he says. "He's not looking to attack; he may not feel dangerous. But you feel you want to saddle up next to him. It just seems like for him it is a custom-made suit."
Fallon says his onscreen persona is just being "true to myself; when I do things, it's not trying to appeal to a certain demographic. I like technology, I like video games. I don't do it to get a younger audience. If I can read four books a year it's big for me, because I have A.D.D., I think. I read half of it and I stop."
He's conscious about not mimicking Carson's exasperated looks to the camera, David Letterman's pencil-throwing or Leno's head shake. "That's their thing." He doesn't know if he has one of his own yet.
But NBC Entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt says Fallon has "all the things you want" in a late-night host, including "his ability to actually engage in the comedy and do sketches" that go viral, like last month's Born to Run parody of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, sung with Bruce Springsteen. "Jimmy's just really positive. He's got such a likability factor that (viewers) will gravitate toward. We're pretty optimistic about him."
And if they don't? Well, NBC's bean counters believe they'll come out ahead anyway.
"On a business level, it's just going to be an improvement no matter what happens, even if the ratings are lower," Greenblatt says of NBC's late-night lineup. That's because Meyers' show will be cheaper to produce than Leno's. Littlefield predicts Fallon's audience will be smaller but younger than Leno's, which would translate into higher per-viewer ad rates. (Even airing an hour later, Fallon had 14% more of those young viewers than Letterman this season).
That would make Michaels — producing Tonight for the first time — very happy, since among other projects he's also behind Late Night with Seth Meyers, due Feb. 24. But will his first love, SNL (returning March 1) remain his primary focus?
"Hopefully," he says. "If these boys don't let me down."