Credit: James White/NBC

Tonight, when Jimmy Fallon takes over The Tonight Show, it may sound woefully out-of-date to suggest that he in any way wants to be, or should be, or is going to be “the new Johnny Carson.” The very phrase reeks of Vegas mothballs. Over the last two decades, starting with the moment when Jay Leno launched his Attack Of The Nice Guy blandified makeover, The Tonight Show has effectively been de-Johnny-fied, and Fallon, who is 24 years younger than Leno (and would be 49 years younger than Carson if Carson were still alive), represents a brand new generation — or maybe I should say a new-brand generation — in the dominance of late night. The amazing freshness of Fallon’s appeal is that he’s looking forward, not back.

Yet moving fearlessly into the future can sometimes return you to what’s fantastic about the past. Fallon, who has cited Steve Allen as a key inspiration, will be working out of the same Mad Men-era New York NBC studio at 30 Rock where Carson first hosted The Tonight Show in 1962, and that’s a crucial symbolic move. (The show moved to Burbank, Calif., in 1972, and has been broadcast from there ever since.) We will never again see a world of three television networks, or an era when there are fewer than 47 competing late-night talk shows. Yet Jimmy Fallon, through his optimistic yet devious wit and ingeniously captivating temperament, now has the chance to unite a large swath of the American late-night audience in a way that it hasn’t been united since Carson’s heyday. I’m not just talking about ratings. I’m talking about late night as a shared space alive with possibility, a place that speaks to the audience instead of narcotizing it with the equivalent of cue-card-laugh NyQuil.

Everyone has a moment when they think The Decline Of America began. Conservatives tend to date it to the early ’60s and the rise of the social safety net; liberals often target 1980, which brought the dawn of Reaganism and what I would call the rise of Unreality Politics. Yet there’s a part of me that’s not being completely tongue-in-cheek when I say that The Decline Of America seemed to arrive, in some trivial yet revealing fashion, in the early 1990s, when the world of late-night talk was forcefully divided in two, like a split atom, and instead of Johnny Carson we suddenly had our choice of two RoboHosts: Jay and Dave, Mr. Nice and Mr. Sourpuss, Mr. Hey-I’m-A-Friendly-Mainstream-Guy and Mr. Hey-I-Diss-My-Own-Network-So-You-Can’t-Confuse-Me-With-The-Man.

The dichotomy was hardly an accident. Jay and Dave were competing in a brave new late-night landscape, and they therefore had to amp up their identities. So, in effect, they pushed each other to embrace superficially contrasting traits and shticks. Letterman, in 1982, had started out as the refreshing, postmodern, next-generation Johnny, bringing a dose of public-access anarchy to mainstream TV, and for years there was a ramshackle, what-the-heck joy to the way that he ran a talk show and deconstructed it at the same time. By the ’90s, though, when he began to convert his bitterness about being passed over for the Tonight Show gig into the cornerstone of his personality, the whole Cranky Dave routine became almost jarringly solipsistic. It was all about him, and really, who cared? He could still be a funny man, but what Letterman now seemed devoted to was portraying himself as a late-night host who was “rebelling” against his executive bosses. He became a programmed curmudgeon (with a victim complex that didn’t seem all that fake), and his shockingly one-note “I’m not a happy corporate entertainer, damn it! I’m a miserable guy and proud of it!” number hijacked most of what was spontaneous and lively and unserious about Letterman in the 1980s and fed it into an endlessly repetitive (not to mention completely corporate) tape loop of high-concept misanthropy.

Meanwhile, over on The Tonight Show, Jay Leno never seemed to say a word that he didn’t think would be approved by his bosses. His eager-to-please, wagging-tail gratefulness for being handed the Tonight Show gig was so transparent, in the way that he acted out his monologue jokes so that every last person in the audience would be sure to get them (you could practically hear the meetings in which he was told, “Don’t come off as elitist, Jay!”), that his personality turned into an egregious form of middle-class bowing and scraping. The thing to take note of is: This wasn’t the real Jay. I interviewed Letterman back in the ’80s, and what I remember best, apart from what a good guy he was, is that when it came to comedy role models, he was fixated on Jay Leno — on Jay’s slicing observational skills as a stand-up comic. Jay, back then, didn’t miss a trick. But when Leno took over The Tonight Show, he underwent a Faustian transformation, trading in the natural edge of his personality for the glory of sitting in Carson’s chair. I think that in his mind he was trying to be “just like Johnny.” The irony is that he couldn’t have been less like Johnny. And that goes for Dave, too. Each of them conjured an aspect of Johnny Carson: the slightly befuddled Middle American decency (Jay), the cutting detachment (Dave). What both missed — and what Jimmy Fallon has — is the devil-may-care twinkle of debonair nonchalance that bridges those two qualities.

If you didn’t grow up with Johnny Carson, it may be hard to understand the place that he occupied in our culture. More than just a talk-show host, he was the late-night king of America — a party host, sleek court jester, and moral judge rolled into one. The Tonight Show monologue had more news value than Jon Stewart, Twitter, and cable news combined: It told you, in its jokes about celebrities and politicians and gossip and products and scandal, what the state of things really was — what was acceptable and what wasn’t acceptable. The strange thing for people like myself, who grew up as kids in the ’70s watching The Tonight Show, is that we were very comfortable with the idea that it wasn’t our show; it was our parents’ show. Johnny, in his silvery hair and checked jackets, was a pre-counterculture guy, a square. But that’s what gave him his skeptical authority, and the beauty of Carson is that he never came off as a pretender. We now know, of course, that he was a very different man in real life — a cold fish, a bit of an assassin — but that just makes me appreciate all the more who Carson was as a TV artist. He could speak to younger viewers because, with his winking intelligence and WASP quizzicality, he was endlessly curious, and he was also the Fred Astaire of one-liners. That’s why The Tonight Show was a pleasure to watch even when it was corny and featured guests like Mitzi Gaynor and Orson Bean and Dr. Joyce Brothers and Charles Nelson Reilly. You relaxed with Johnny, because in his impish suburban way he was cool.

For two decades now, Jay and Dave, both trying to live up to the Carson mantle, have been trying way too hard. But Jimmy Fallon has a lot more hard-wired confidence than they do. It’s telling that Fallon is such a genius of an impressionist, because the impersonator’s art — at least, when you’re as great at it as Fallon is — is really the skill of a master psychologist: You drink in other people’s traits, you understand how their brains and mannerisms work, and you mirror it all back — effortlessly. Would you want to watch Jimmy Fallon do an impersonation of you? I, for one, would not; I’m sure he’d reveal something teasingly perceptive that I didn’t want to see. My point is that Fallon, without in any way parading the idea that he has an “edge” to his personality, has the sharp observational daring — the thing that Jay Leno had doing standup, before he became Goofy Jay — that we crave in contemporary comedians. Fallon has got major antennae; that’s why those doe eyes of his gleam with cunning. He doesn’t have to package himself as an Alienated Smart Guy to be the smartest (and funniest) guy in the room.

At the same time, Jimmy Fallon is nice as pie without being fake about it. His personality is never innocuous, but he has an easy, laughing way of communicating how much he likes people, which is why the occasional awkwardness of his interviewing skills doesn’t matter all that much; as with Johnny, what you’re enjoying is Jimmy’s enjoyment of the moment. If you were to generalize about the generations (and who doesn’t like to?), Gen-X is scrupulously cynical, and Gen-Y — to the faintly jealous horror of Gen-X — is much more open and optimistic. Fallon, born in 1974, falls on the cusp. Technically, he’s an X-er, but he’s really one of those in-betweeners who absorbed the best of both worlds into his spiritual and comic DNA. He’s got all the aesthetic advantages of Gen-X cynicism — the razor-sharp eye, the ability to see the bulls—t factor in almost anything — yet he merges those with the uncynical heart of Gen-Y. That makes him a double threat: a wickedly on-target acerbic optimist. He’s Jay and Dave in one body. And just as he unites those qualities, he now has the chance to unite the audience.

The way that late night has evolved, viewers now cleave to the host they love — they’re a Dave person, or a Kimmel person, or a Craig Ferguson person, or an Arsenio person — and that diverse spectrum of fandom is just one reflection of the way that America has become a nation of niches, individualized and often obsessive. Most of the mushrooming panopoly of late-night hosts, from Conan O’Brien onward, have been cut from the tattered cloth of David Letterman. They’re cynical ironic barb-tossers, and most of them are undeniably good at what they do. Yet there’s a reason why none of them has come close to wearing Johnny Carson’s crown. Johnny wasn’t a niche entertainer. He was America’s Friend, and he had a singular ability, no matter who you were, to make you feel like he was your representative. Niches may now be a way of life, but you can’t unite the audience if you speak only to people who think they’re just like you. Jimmy Fallon is an exuberantly witty late-night party host who radiates a love for what he’s doing that can’t be matched. He’s not trying too hard, the way that Jay did, to invite everyone to the party (or reveling in his cheeky self-pity, the way that Dave did, over the fact that not everyone’s attending). But Fallon, on The Tonight Show, now has the chance to throw the best party around — a party, perhaps, that no one will want to be left out of.

The Tonight Show (TV Show)
  • TV Show