Credit: James White/NBC

Everything had to go wrong for Jimmy Fallon to get The Tonight Show. NBC had to choose Leno over Letterman, and then choose Leno again over O’Brien: A pair of historic injustices, if you’re the kind of person who treats millionaire-white-dude desk-swapping like generation-defining culture-quakes. There’s a school of thinking that Letterman and O’Brien “deserved” The Tonight Show — not to mention two decades of jokes about how Leno didn’t deserve it. But deserve’s got nothing to do with it. The Tonight Show is a powerful concept — a way to talk about Hollywood or America or Comedy or Whatever Matters Now — but it’s also a straightforward piece of old-fashioned showbiz, a variety show airing five times a week on a network that needs to make money.

Letterman and O’Brien always had a perspective on the late-night franchise that was simultaneously admirable and totally weird: They seemed to buy in completely to the grand idea of The Tonight Show, but also want more than anything to stamp themselves completely onto that grand idea. As related in Bill Carter’s The War for Late Night, O’Brien could have actually kept The Tonight Show but refused to move it back to midnight. Four years later, it’s hard to tell whether that exit was a brave blow struck in the eternal battle of Individual against Machine, or a defining moment in the history of Taking Things Too Seriously.

What’s undeniable is that, in his final weeks, O’Brien created some of the finest hours in contemporary late-night history: Hilarious and bitter, whimsical and sad. He was an intense host — and still is on TBS, though his fire has been replaced either with contentment or regret. It’s clear to see now that he struggled in the early months of his Tonight Show: The move to L.A., the Jay Leno Show catastrophe, the sense that NBC maybe just thought he was too weird for 11:30. The fight with his own network gave him a mission statement. His final speech still hits you in the heart.

Fallon referenced this troubled history a couple of times in his first opening monologue: “I’m Jimmy Fallon, and I’ll be your host for now,” and thanking the previous Tonight Show hosts in puckish chronological order, “Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, and Jay Leno.” He made the same jokes that headline writers made months ago, probably because he felt like he had to.

But then he moved on. And unlike when O’Brien started, Fallon right now is all mission statement. He moved The Tonight Show back to New York City. This simple change of location gives Fallon cool cred (opening credits by Spike Lee) but also legacy cred (he can talk a lot about Carson) while also helping NBC maintain the cultural conceit that 30 Rock is the center of the world. (All of Fallon’s monologue jokes were about the Olympics, currently airing on NBC; lest we miss the synergy, he played a clip from the Today show.) In the premiere’s showstopping moment, Fallon ascended to the Top of the Rock. U2 played one of their terrible new songs, and it was wonderful: Bono doing the Jesus pose, screaming “New York” while the Empire State Building shined red-white-and-blue in the background.

Fallon is much younger than Leno and much less weird than O’Brien. Theoretically, this could lose him viewers in the long run — the young viewers stick with O’Brien and Colbert and Kimmel, the old people move on to Letterman or wait patiently for Leno or suddenly discover that cable got invented decades ago. But in this first show, you could marvel at how effectively Fallon and his team have attempted to triangulate themselves. Fallon’s new set is purposefully old-fashioned compared to the college-cafe-in-the-meatpacking-district where he lived on Late Night. But his bit about yearbook awards for Olympic athletes found time for a weed joke and a Saved by the Bell reference (“Lesbian Screech”), while mixing in rimshots about the Jonas Brothers and Justin Bieber.

You got the clear sense that Fallon just wants everyone to play together. At one point, he turned to the camera and said, “To my buddy who said I’d never host The Tonight Show: You owe me 100 bucks.” The celebrity parade that followed was a canny mix: New York icons (De Niro, Giuliani, Broadway Joe, SJP), haterade-baiting tabloid icons (Kardashian, Lohan), NBC Super-Friends (Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan), legitimate superstars (Gaga, Rogen, Mariah Carey going full-pout), all of the above (Joan Rivers, Mike Tyson), and his time-slot rival Stephen Colbert, who got the loudest laugh of the night with the line “Welcome to 11:30, bitch!” But that was right after he took a selfie. Everyone’s a friend here.

The viral bit — Fallon and first guest Will Smith doing “the evolution of hip-hop dancing” — was funny, and also a reminder that Fallon is one of the most natural physical performers to ever host a late-night show on a broadcast network. That was followed immediately by an actual interview with Will Smith — a reminder that Fallon is one of the least natural interviewers to ever host, etc., etc. Fallon is a nice guy. He’s a hugger. He gave Will Smith a hug and told him that he was great, and his family was great, and he asked Smith for advice on how to handle being great.

People always bring up Fallon’s niceness when they compare him to other late-night hosts. On one hand, it’s a survival strategy. Celebrities have so many options for connecting to non-celebrity human beings now: More shows, more social media. Fallon wants people to come on his show and play. This means that his conversations can be shockingly dry — “I gotta congratulate you on raising the nicest girl ever!” — but they also reap big rewards when the celebrities start to play along. I glazed over for both segments of Smith’s interview, but the moment he stared at the camera with an intense curling face was worth it all.

Likewise, the interview with U2 was well-nigh inscrutable — it was like everyone and yet no one was talking all at once. At one point, Fallon said: “If Bono can get up and talk, everyone knows it’s a great speech!” Grooooan. But then he asked Bono to do a speech about his coffee mug, and Bono played along:

“I can only do a speech about things I believe in… but I believe in this cup. It’s not a cup, it’s a container. It demands to be filled, by our love or bad thoughts. This cup was held in the hand of Nelson Mandela.”

Then Fallon asked U2 to perform acoustically for him. They played another one of their terrible new songs — the one that will probably win an Oscar — and it was just beautiful, and then midway through the song Bono turned to Fallon’s house band and said “Roots? Come on!” and then it was perfect.

Even though Fallon is a big fan of The Tonight Show, you get the pleasant vibe that he is unencumbered by any extraneous anxiety of influence — that he has no soul-crushing concern that he will somehow fail to live up to some higher ideal of Carsonhood. “I wanna do the best I can and take care of this show for a while,” he said modestly in his prologue. “I read jokes off a cue card. My goal is to make you laugh and put a smile on your face.”

It will be interesting to see over the months (and hopefully years) to follow how he evolves behind the desk. You hope that he can figure out how to conduct an interview without making half the questions a variation on “HOW DID YOU GET SO AWESOME?” Conversely, you wonder if he might just wind up replacing the interviews with viral-ready clips: More dance numbers, more nostalgia bait.

But it could be that Fallon would prefer altogether not to do anything too bold with the format; that he sees himself as a proud curator, both of The Tonight Show‘s history and of a happy-place performance space where Will Smith can nod along at the end of the couch to a U2 acoustic performance. He’s confident; he’s casual; he’s well-adjusted; he’s got the Roots. “This is exciting!” he said at the start of the show, before helpfully reiterating, “I couldn’t be more excited.” Time-slot rival Jimmy Kimmel is the inheritor of the Letterman tradition: Too cool for school. Fallon is the guy who thinks school is pretty cool.

Premiere Grade: B+

The Tonight Show (TV Show)
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