It was just over four years ago that much digital ink was spilled on this blog over the Game of Thrones-like* maneuvering in the kingdom of late night. We talked about the principled, heroic path that Conan O’Brien chose, or, arguably, forged. We also suggested that, perhaps, Jay Leno wasn’t the malevolent Machiavelli we all assumed him to be. We also stressed that David Letterman, his house untouched, remained the King of Late Night, the walls of his castle fortified and impenetrable, and he was likely watching, with glee, as his competitors warred around him.** Like with many blogs and media outlets at the time, the post-11:30pm drama dominated the conversation on this site. And now, nearly half a decade later, Leno has been dethroned*** once again, but this is first we’ve written about it. Why? Because this time Leno was replaced in a bloodless coup, a gracious transfer of power, with the young, affable Jimmy Fallon ascending to The Tonight Show desk in grand, but still humble and respectful fashion.
In fact, four episodes into Fallon’s Tonight Show and the only real notable shift from Late Night is that the former program has returned to New York, where it began so many years ago. And that geographical stasis might explain why Fallon’s Tonight does not stray very far at all from his Late Night, save for a new, gorgeous coliseum-like theater, more space for the thirty-four members of The Roots and an opening sequence directed by Spike Lee (whatever that entails). Nearly through his first week as the guy, Fallon has already trotted out Late Night favorites like “The Evolution of_____,” the Ragtime Gals barbershop quartet, the #Hashtag sketch, and charades (a segment that, no doubt, inspired NBC to develop my parent’s new favorite show, Celebrity Game Night). What is actually most interesting and telling to us, even if it is a fluke of the schedule, a footnote due to the Olympic programming, is that Fallon’s Tonight Show actually debuted at midnight, a concept that Conan O’Brien found so sacrilege that it became the keystone of his argument for parting ways with NBC.
But with Fallon, so attuned to the world of DVRs and YouTube, time slots are meaningless, just some listing in TV guide, historical minutiae. His show would not be measured by the number of viewers during a certain hour. It wouldn’t even be measured with +7 ratings or YouTube. It would be measured by laughs, it would be judged by the barometer of fun. What Fallon’s Tonight Show has demonstrated thus far, and supported by his temporarily delayed time slot, is that it’s the “Show” part that matters, not the “Tonight” part. If he can make people laugh, especially an A-list celebrity or legendary music group, or Steve Higgins or his own parents, or you at home or your own parents, then he’s happy. Then he’s doing the show that he wants. Unlike Conan, Fallon cedes the floor to his guests. And, unlike Conan, Fallon is willing to cede his time slot to network partners, just happy to be a part of the team. Which, again, is less of a magnanimous, unselfish gesture and more the necessities of prime-time Olympic programming. Still, it feels fitting that even when nice guy Jimmy Fallon got the call to the big show, he was bumped thirty minute to accommodate replays of Ice Dancing. And, we feel safe in saying, he couldn’t be happier about it.