Jimmy Fallon has been the new host of The Tonight Show for less than two weeks, and it’s either four years too late to judge his performance or four years too soon. In one sense, we already know Jimmy — it’s been 15 years since we first met Fallon on Saturday Night Live and five since he walked away from a not-quite-there movie career to become a talk-show guy. He has done this literally a thousand times already. On the other hand, if in the wake of the Sochi Olympics we’re hanging on to the passing-of-the-torch metaphor and treating Tonight as an ancient trust passed down every couple of decades, then we know nothing; that’s because we don’t know who Fallon is going to be when, in a few years, he walks through that parted curtain like he owns the place. Will he be smug and weary? Confident? Unflaggingly cheerful? Exhausted? What will he sound like when something actually makes him angry? It’s the middle years that will cast his identity in bronze.
His competition is already defined. We’ve watched Letterman — as various parts of his exterior have whitened and various parts of his interior have darkened — become our nation’s Grand Old Crank. Nobody in the history of the medium has toggled more effectively between being amusingly pissed off and being seriously pissed off. Conan O’Brien continues to commodify his own awkwardness brilliantly; starting his third decade on the job, he remains a guy who never goes anywhere without first packing a set of air quotes. He’s a “late-night host” “doing comedy” and “interviewing” “celebrities” — even on TBS, which is technically “cable” but spiritually about as unironically broadcast-TV as it gets. If you watch him, you are “Team Coco,” a label that emerged when he won, then lost, Tonight so brutally that he seemed to complete his persona by adding a permanent sense of injury to it. That made him fascinating because we knew it was the only thing about him that wasn’t in air quotes. (It also made him, weirdly and sadly, more like Leno.) As for The Other Jimmy, Kimmel found his swing early; his job is to host a wiseass, neo–Rat Packy after-hours club for people who get his vibe and whose vibe he gets. Like Fallon, he moved from late-night to earlier late-night, but his I-gotta-be-me demeanor traveled with him.
Fallon, by contrast, is more I-gotta-be-worthy. Awkward, overwhelmed, hopeful, and ingratiating, he has so far treated his new home and time slot as a passage to manhood. He is a deep respecter of tradition, and tradition dictates that at this juncture he must ignore reality, which is that Leno’s show basically got canceled and replaced with his own — and pretend instead that he just got called up from the minors to pitch game 7. He must introduce himself to a vast portion of America that has apparently never stayed up past 12:30 a.m., seen Saturday Night Live, or visited the Internet.
That’s nonsense, of course, because it has nothing to do with the way people in this century consume entertainment — but it’s a useful myth that Fallon was shrewd to exploit. In a way, it’s perfect that the Olympics handed him spectacular first-week ratings but also forced his show to start at midnight — 11:30 is Jay’s time. Worse, in Fallon’s mind, it’s Johnny’s time. And in week 1, he wanted the world to know he knows he isn’t Johnny. In part, that’s because Fallon is at an awkward age. He’s 39 (as he told us on night 1). Watch him in clips from five or 10 years ago, and you can see that he’s thickened a little; he’s in the last moment that anybody’s going to call him boyish. As a monologuist, he goes down easy; as an interviewer, he’s…friendly, sometimes exhaustingly so. He treats celebs as VIP guests at his party, whereas Kimmel treats them as barroom buddies, O’Brien as joke props, and Letterman as job applicants. That’s not a disaster, but it’s something he could work on; when he goes viral, it’s because he’s mewing “Ew!” like a Valley girl, not because he got anybody to say something surprising. Still, Fallon’s first week had promise and made me think that he might get a lot more compelling (or at least have a really interesting meltdown) when he turns 40. That show starts Sept. 19.