The Saturday Night Live alum returns to TV to claim Conan O'Brien?s old desk

By Tim Stack
Updated May 20, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT
Jimmy Fallon

Jimmy Fallon need not thank Lorne Michaels for his new gig. He shouldn?t send flowers to NBC?s head honchos, either. And Conan O?Brien can forget about that spa gift certificate. The thank-yous should actually go to Fallon?s classmates at St. Mary of the Snow parochial school in Saugerties, N.Y. It was these prepubescent prognosticators who initially saw his potential as the next great talk-show host. ?In my eighth-grade yearbook they put ?James Fallon Is Most Likely to Replace David Letterman,?? says Fallon, sitting in his office on the seventh floor of 30 Rock, three weeks from his debut as Conan O?Brien?s Late Night replacement. ?I should hang that up somewhere.?

Better yet, he might want to bring it along for a little show-and-tell on March 2 at 12:35 a.m. — just in case he needs help convincing audiences that he?s the right man for the desk. After peacing out of Saturday Night Live in 2004, Fallon was hoping to follow fellow SNL alums like Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy to the big screen. But his first two (and pretty much only) major forays into film did little to launch his movie career, and for the next three years, he all but fell off the Hollywood map. Now the comedian, 34, has been handed the second chance of a lifetime, nabbing a gig that could either turn him into a pop culture icon and nightly TV institution, like Carson, Leno, or Letterman — or be remembered as an embarrassingly high-profile blemish on his résumé. Says Late Night and SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels: ?The thing I said to Conan, which I also said to Jimmy, is ?There is no job after this. You don?t go play the third lead in a movie.?? The pressure is not lost on Fallon, who is unsure of how long his contract with NBC lasts. ?I?m assuming three years, but to be honest, it could be one.? Continues the clearly tired star, ?I wish it was more of a soft opening. I don?t like to make such a big deal out of the first show because it?s a marathon, not a race. I don?t want to make it into ?Get ready for one night of pleasure.? I?m going to be here hopefully for years.?

Almost a month earlier, Fallon?s enthusiasm is palpable; he?s like a kid with a shiny new talk show, and he wants everyone around him to be enjoying themselves even more than he is. Strolling through the SNL soundstage, Fallon is clearly proud of his new digs. ?We?re getting our seats from Radio City,? he says giddily, heading toward a nearby sound booth where he and Late Night?s new announcer, Steve Higgins, are filming a webisode for the show?s official site. Consisting of short segments, sometimes funny (Jimmy confronts his old high school bully!) and sometimes not (Jimmy gets LASIK surgery!), the webisodes, which debuted in December 2008, are Fallon?s attempt to engage his fans and introduce himself to the youth demographic. Explains Michaels, ?I think probably 90 percent of the audience will discover him for the first time.?

For a sketch in which Jimmy introduces Higgins to viewers, the announcer, who?s also an SNL producer, practices some potential opening lines for the show, including ?You loved him on SNL. You hated him in the movies. Now you?re ambivalent. Please welcome…Jimmy Fallon!? While many stars might shy away from mocking their own failures, Fallon has a good sense of humor about his aborted movie career. Taxi, an action comedy costarring Queen Latifah, managed a dismal $37 million domestically. ?I?d never done a movie,? he says. ?You get makeup on at 6 a.m. Then it?s one in the afternoon and they?re like, ?We need you!? And you?re like, ?I peaked at 11:30! Now you want me to be funny. This sucks.??

Fallon followed up Taxi with the romantic comedy Fever Pitch, costarring Drew Barrymore. Pitch fared better with critics but petered out at the box office with $42 million. Still, there was a silver lining: Fallon fell in love with Barrymore?s producing partner, Nancy Juvonen, and the pair married in December 2007. Unfortunately, it seemed Hollywood had broken up with Fallon, as the offers dwindled. ?My theory is he didn?t just do hard comedies, the way Adam [Sandler] did or Will Ferrell did,? posits Michaels. ?I think if he had done Billy Madison, he probably would have built his base, but I don?t think that?s who he is.? For the record, aside from a cameo in this year?s Whip It!, Barrymore?s directing debut (also produced by Juvonen), Fallon says he?s done with acting for now. ?Maybe a movie-of-the-week,? jokes the star. ?See if Meredith Baxter is available.?

Luckily, Michaels had a different career path in mind for Fallon. In the fall of 2004, NBC revealed that Conan O?Brien would replace Jay Leno in 2009. Fallon had just left SNL, and Michaels was the first to suggest to the comedian that he?d be perfect to fill O?Brien?s empty seat. Fallon wasn?t officially approached by NBC, though, until early last year. (Michaels, a staunch advocate of his former ?Weekend Update? host, had urged NBC to give Fallon a holding deal in February 2007 so that he couldn?t be lured elsewhere.) Once the Late Night deal was done, Michaels tasked Fallon with ?training? for the gig by returning to his stand-up roots; and over the last eight months, Fallon has toured college campuses and comedy clubs, where he tested out a new, 50-minute routine. ?It was kind of fun to stay at a Best Western,? he admits. ?It focuses you, and you end up writing better stuff.? Meanwhile, Michaels and Fallon assembled a well-pedigreed team for Late Night, including Higgins, longtime SNL producer Michael Shoemaker as showrunner, and celebrated hip-hop group the Roots as the house band.

Of course, Fallon also has a staff of 11 writers to help him, and on the Friday afternoon before the Super Bowl, a select group is gathered in the Late Night offices for a meeting. As the scribes take turns pitching various comedy ideas for the talk show based on news stories, someone brings up the fact that smoking has been banned in the Las Vegas airport terminal. ?What if you?re Megan Fox and you?re always smokin?? cracks Fallon, mock-high-fiving the writer next to him. Steve Higgins enters the room and announces that he?s booked Marla Gibbs and Blind Melon for the first show. ?Who did you get for the second show?? asks Fallon. Higgins deadpans, ?Jim J. Bullock and…Madame.? Actually, the news is a bit better than that: Guests for the first week include Robert De Niro, Tina Fey, Cameron Diaz, and Donald Trump. (Better luck next time, Jim J.)

One recent February afternoon on the Queens set of Sesame Street, Fallon — dressed in a cargo vest and utility belt for his role as ?Wild Nature Survival Guy? — is giving Elmo and Rosita some outdoorsy tips for a guest spot airing next fall. ?Aha,? he exclaims, discovering a feather on the ground. ?An incredible find! These are the perfect things to keep me warm!?? Given the intense scrutiny he?s about to face with Late Night, Fallon?s going to need all the survival skills he can muster. ?As much as people will hit me, there?s no way they can hit me harder than Conan,? says Fallon of the critical pounding O?Brien took during his first year as host. ?You gotta give him respect for what he survived.? And last December, Fallon?s job got a little bit harder when NBC signed Jay Leno to a five-nights-a-week 10 p.m. series, meaning Late Night will become the third hour of talk on the network each evening. (The only person to feel worse for is Carson Daly — his Last Call will be hour No. 4.) ?I can?t see people watching three talk shows in a row,? says Fallon. ?I think TV critics will have to watch all three, so it sucks for them. But what am I going to do?? Ben Silverman, co-chair of NBC Entertainment, says he?s ?not focused on the numbers initially,? though it?s likely the network hopes Fallon can maintain a decent portion of O?Brien?s 1.9 million average. And the outgoing Late Night host has confidence that his successor will have a much easier go of it than he did. ?NBC really didn?t give my show ?time to grow.? They canceled me in 1995, but they were so busy retooling Suddenly Susan that the paperwork never came through,? O?Brien tells EW via e-mail. ?As for Jimmy, I honestly don?t think he?s going to need much patience from the network or the viewers. He?ll do a great job out of the gate.?

The pressure on Fallon will surely die down in June, when O?Brien takes the reins of The Tonight Show and is once again under the critical microscope. And one advantage Fallon has going for him: a large group of celebrity pals — like Drew Barrymore, who?s appearing on Late Night Friday, March 6. ?I think he?s going to bring something fresh and young [to late night],? says the actress. ?He?s one of the funniest people I?ve ever known.? That?s all that Fallon really wants: to give people a chuckle before they nod off. Late-night audiences, he explains, are like ?comedy junkies.? ?They?re like, ?Give me one more. C?mon, I?m awake! I don?t want to go to bed mad or think about my problems!? So I can read you the bedtime story, and you?re gonna go to bed and have sweet dreams.? But what about the nightmare scenario? ?I have no plan if the show fails,? says Fallon simply. ?I?m planning it?s going to work.?