As he wraps up his final show of the week on a cold Friday in February, Jimmy Fallon closes out the episode as he does every night, by bounding up and down the stairs of his 30 Rock studio, high-fiving the audience. The crowd, composed mostly of tourists and college kids, gleefully reaches out for the chance to smack palms with the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon host. Fallon’s own enthusiasm is palpable, and not surprising. After all, the 35-year-old has survived his first year in the NBC late-night waters, a particularly impressive feat given that he spent part of his rookie season caught in the middle of the tumultuous Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien Tonight Show debacle. Still, Fallon views the whole experience in his typically upbeat fashion: ”It actually added to the excitement.”
While he currently trails CBS’ The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson in the ratings (Late Night averages 1.69 million nightly to Late Late Show‘s 1.90 million), Fallon and his team have built an audience by delivering buzzy comedy bits like ”Lick It for Ten,” ”Slow Jammin’ the News,” and their spoof of Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise, called ”The Real Housewives of Late Night.” With March 2 marking Fallon’s one-year anniversary on Late Night, EW met up with the host at his office for a candid discussion about the past 12 months, the Conan and Jay fallout, the day David Letterman paid a visit, and that time a guest showed up with swine flu.
EW: Do you remember how you were feeling a year ago during the premiere?
Jimmy Fallon: I remember it was a blizzard and I was so frightened that Van Morrison and Justin Timberlake weren’t gonna show up. I knew [Robert] De Niro lived in the city, so, like, he’s gotta be here. I was gonna call Tina Fey because she lives here too. I remember at the commercial break, they were patting the sweat off me — now we’ve lowered the temperature in the studio because I was sweating too much. I drank two Red Bulls before I went out. Talk about sweat. I was like Tom Sizemore on Celebrity Rehab. So [exec producer] Lorne [Michaels] banned Red Bull.
Your first guest was Robert De Niro, who’s a tough interview. Do you regret choosing him for the premiere?
He doesn’t like to talk. No, I think it was perfect. He had nothing to promote. He came on as a favor: New Yorker, legendary movie star. That’s the vibe that we wanna put out there: ”You should drop by our show.” Hopefully I’ll interview him again — I would love to see if it’s better. I think I’ve gotten better.
One of the things you were worried about last year when we spoke was the media reaction to your show. Did you read reviews after the premiere?
I did, because you can’t get away from them. I can hide away. But I can’t stop my office, and I can’t stop my family, and I can’t stop strangers. Because some dudes just come up and go, ”Hey, bummer what they said about you on PopEater.” You go, ”Oh my God. What did they say?” Curiosity builds up, and you go, ”All right, I gotta see this.” You have to see it because maybe it will help you change — some of it’s good criticism.
What’s been the toughest adjustment so far?
You gotta be here when you’re sick. I’ve done a couple shows where I’m sick, and they’re just awful. It just sucks! You’re like, ”I don’t wanna be out here. I wanna be watching TiVo, under a blanket, eating Cup O’ Noodles.”
Do you have any favorite behind-the-scenes memories?
We had Paul Shaffer on as a guest. He goes, ”I brought a friend of mine.” David Letterman came in and is just hanging out in the dressing room. He’s like, ”This is insane. Jimmy, you don’t understand — we didn’t have this at all when I was [at NBC]. I’m jealous of your linoleum.” That was my favorite line. Dave watched my monologue with Lorne. He saw me doing a move and was like, ”Oh, he’s doing a Carson thing there.” Everyone was buzzing. It was awesome that he just did that.
How was it playing Betty White in beer pong?
That was my first win. Dude, I sank the first Ping-Pong ball in her cup, and she grabbed the pitcher and went to chug! If I killed Betty White on national television, I’d be hated. I was like, ”Betty, oh, no! Drink the cup! You don’t chug the whole pitcher of beer!” She’s awesome.
Do you think you’ll act again?
I’ve worked more this year than I have ever. I’m doing, like, Regis roles where I play a New York City celebrity, like, ”Oh my God, we’re in New York City. There’s Jimmy Fallon at the restaurant.” I did a movie with Queen Latifah and Common. I did 30 Rock. I did Gossip Girl — Hilary Duff came on the show as her character. She came on our show with swine flu, by the way. Unbelievable. That’s one of the worst things I think anyone could come to your house and bring. What did you bring? Swedish meatballs. What did you bring? Wine. Oh, I brought the swine flu. What the f — -? I was so mad. I was like, ”Everyone take vitamin C — Hilary has swine flu.”
Has this whole ride been harder or easier than you expected?
It’s kinda been what I expected it to be. We were nervous about ratings, and we ended up just doing pretty well. So we were like, ”Okay, that’s good. We’re not going to get fired.” And then everybody started getting fired. [Laughs] Then it got serious again. Now everyone in late night is being fired?that was a weird thing, and definitely part of TV history. We were 10 months into the show when that all went down. But NBC was like, ”Look, we wanna move your show to 1 in the morning.” I was like, ”Okay.”
So you would have been fine with your show moving to 1 a.m.?
I don’t think it matters. I think my audience will find me if they wanna find me. I think in the future this is going to be a joke — time slots. People won’t even know what that is. People will be like, ”That was a big deal? Back in the 2000s? Back in the zeroes?”
Did you hear directly from Jay or Conan when the Tonight Show drama was going on?
I found out about Jay from the dude that installs our VCRs and does our cable stuff in the hallway.
That’s how you found out he was coming back to The Tonight Show?
That he was being fired [from The Jay Leno Show]. It was 9:30 a.m. I’m coming into work. I see the [cable] guy. I go, ”Hey, what’s up, buddy?” He goes, ”It’s so awful about Jay. He’s been fired.” I go, ”Right, right, right.” Like, I thought he was doing a bit. He goes, ”It’s awful, right?” I go, ”Are you serious?” He’s like, ”Yeah. That’s what I’m hearing.” So immediately I go to Twitter, because God forbid NBC calls me. We called everybody, and no one let us know what’s going on. Then Jay called me, and it was just a basic [conversation about] what was going on. I reached out to Conan, and he called me back and we talked. He said he was cool, but he was angry. I just wanted to let him know that I support him. If I have to follow him at 1 o’clock, if there’s anything I could do, I’ll totally do it. It was just a sad thing. I didn’t want this to happen. And neither did he.
It sounds like NBC wasn’t in touch with you during most of this.
No. Lorne was involved more than I was. My thing was, let’s just keep doing our show. Keep being funny. Don’t get involved in any of this stuff. In the end, everyone’s gonna have jobs, hopefully, and work. They’re making millions of dollars. I’m not. [Laughs]
When you look back at this year, what stands out the most?
Hopefully we’ll be doing this in 10 years, and then in 10 years I can look back and reminisce.
Do you think you’ll still be doing the show in 10 years?
Who knows? Right now we’re having fun. It’s a lot of work — it just hasn’t stopped.
JIMMY’S 5 FAVORITE LATE NIGHT MOMENTS
Mark Paul Gosselaar returns as Saved By the Bell‘s Zack
”He was like, ‘Before you pitch me ideas, here’s my idea: I wanna come on as Zack.’ I was like, ‘This is fantastic!’ He was like, ‘I’ll bring the wig.’ That was our biggest viral hit.”
Dance-off with Cameron Diaz
”That was one of my favorite things because she can move. She was great. I definitely don’t forget the first couple of weeks because that’s when you need friends to show up — and I’ll never forget [that she came].”
”Slow jammin’ the news”
”That was [created by] these two writers, Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle. I think they went to Harvard Law. They were like, ‘What do you think about taking a news story and just saying it in an R&B type of slow-jam way?”’
”The Real Housewives of Late Night”
”I based my character on Jill Zarin,” says Fallon (far right). ”I love Real Housewives. We were like, ‘Let’s ask the Roots to be in it, too.’ And the Roots were like, ‘No. We’re not being in drag.”’
Neil Young does ”Pants on the Ground”
Fallon broke out his Young impression to spoof the Idol ditty: ”We did Neil Young [covering] ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ first, but ‘Pants on the Ground’ became a bigger hit.”