How do you turn a 20th-century institution like ''The Tonight Show'' into a 21st-century viral hit? Give it to Jimmy Fallon. After taking over Jay Leno's desk in February, the comic-turned-host-turned-merry-prankster has boosted viewership on air and online with laughs, celebrity high jinks, and musical mayhem — and there's more to come in 2015.
For most people, meeting Barbra Streisand would be the highlight of their year. If, somehow, you were permitted to sing with her, it would win the decade. But to duet with Babs in front of a national television audience? That would be an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime event — unless you’re Jimmy Fallon.
”People on the street are like, ‘Dude — you were with Barbra,”’ he says. ”’Barbra! That’s fantastic!’ And I’m like, ‘Really? Did we do that? That’s amazing, but…when was that, even?”’
It happened this past September on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, marking an end to Streisand’s 50-plus-year absence from the program. But even here in his office at 30 Rock in Manhattan, Fallon admits he has a hard time keeping track of 2014. ”I don’t ever really know what I’m doing until we have some time off or someone asks about it. They’ll say, ‘You did a sketch with Carol Burnett on The Tonight Show.’ And I’ll be like, ‘I did? That’s right — I totally did that!”’
Fallon totally did a lot of things during his first year as host of The Tonight Show. To start: He sang karaoke with Emma Stone, did the Stanky Legg with Will Smith, landed a song with will.i.am on the Hot 100 chart, staged a drum-off between Will Ferrell and a Red Hot Chili Pepper, and exposed Daniel Radcliffe as a skilled rapper. All that’s just from the first page of The Tonight Show‘s most popular YouTube videos, where each clip has at least 10 million views; the highest, ”Lip Sync Battle With Emma Stone,” is at 36 million and counting. Stone famously won that battle, but Fallon won the war. Since this time last year, The Tonight Show has exploded from 514,000 to 1.8 million Twitter followers; on Facebook, it went from 765,000 to 4 million followers; and on YouTube, it rose from 1.5 million to 5.2 million subscribers. That’s enough to eclipse every other late-night host from Jimmy Kimmel to David Letterman. Thanks to Fallon, The Tonight Show has gone viral.
Meanwhile, The Tonight Show proper — the version that the National Broadcasting Company airs every weeknight after your local news — is not only No. 1 in late-night, it’s also up in the ratings. Yes, up, as in higher than it was in Jay Leno’s hands the year before. Which is all backward: When the 40-year-old Fallon took over in February, Leno’s graying viewership was supposed to bolt at the sight of this new kid, and the young audience Fallon had courted during his Late Night years was supposed to be too busy Snapchatting to sit in front of a TV. ”The ratings are almost, like, double,” says Fallon, full of pride if not math. Among the all-important 18-49 demo, average viewership is 31 percent higher, a trajectory that happens only if you’re the NFL, a zombie, or Shonda Rhimes.
Part of the key to Fallon’s success has been turning the show into the hottest party in town. On any given night you’ll find a friendly fun house full of celebrities, games, surprise cameos, music, and good vibes all around. ”The show feels different,” says Leno, who returned as a guest on Nov. 7. ”It’s young, it’s music-oriented. He does stuff I couldn’t get away with. At some point, you can’t pretend to know all of Jay Z’s songs anymore.” Leno even goes so far as to evoke Johnny Carson, the Tonight Show icon revered by every comedian behind a desk. ”He’s probably more like Johnny than any other host,” Leno says. ”Johnny was very boyish when he was 40 years old.”
Fallon’s endless energy makes for great TV — though it doesn’t leave him with much time to savor the moment. ”It’s so fast and hectic and busy,” he says. ”None of us really realize what we’re doing as we’re doing it.”
”The Kardashian thing I’m kind of sick of,” Fallon says to no one in particular. ”It blew up real quick, but it didn’t really break the Internet. The Internet still works.”
He and his head writers are sitting around a table in Fallon’s office, where they assemble every morning for the daily creative meeting. It’s Thursday, and they’re going through packets of potential jokes for tonight’s monologue, tomorrow’s Thank You Notes and NFL Superlatives, and next week’s Hashtags. Punchlines about Kim Kardashian’s Paper magazine cover, which hit the Internet one full day ago, are starting to wear out the room.
So Fallon moves on: ”There’s a board game for kids called Gooey Louie, where you pull boogers out of his nose. If you pull the wrong booger, his brain flies out.” The table bursts into laughter. Producer Gavin Purcell pulls up the ad on his laptop and plays it on one of the two giant TVs hanging in the office. It’s as ridiculous as they’d hoped — and perfect fodder for one of the goofy games that have become the show’s main attraction. ”Like, how does Channing Tatum play Pictionary?” Fallon asks. ”How could you see that, unless you hang out with Channing Tatum at his house?”
More games mean less time for guest interviews, which happens to work to Fallon’s advantage. Critics have cited his interview style — too complimentary, even fanboyish — as a weakness. Fallon himself admits there are still improvements to be made (”I could always be better at interviewing,” he says), but he points out how much he’s grown since he started on Late Night in 2009. ”I’d rush through everything. I’d talk to De Niro and just run through everything. I’d be sweating. They’d tell me to stretch, because we didn’t fill up enough time…. But I just kept getting better at talking to guests, and not worrying about time. After five years of doing Late Night, you just get better.”
If Fallon is no Dick Cavett, the show might be better for it. The traditional chat-on-a-couch format was forged at a time when hosts didn’t have to compete with the Internet, videogames, or Breaking Bad on Netflix. ”If you watch old interviews on talk shows from 30 years ago, they can be more meandering,” says showrunner Josh Lieb. ”Maybe more boring, even. We can’t afford those boring minutes.”
Celebrity guests on The Tonight Show have followed suit by agreeing to high jinks that would normally be swatted down by a phalanx of publicists. Bradley Cooper smashed eggs on his own face, while Glenn Close competed in a pie-eating contest. The segments give A-list stars a platform to prove that they can have fun, maybe even be relatable. Best-case scenario: A clip of their antics goes viral, earning them endless free publicity for whatever project they’re promoting. Worst-case: They’re just another in a long line of celebrities looking silly on the show. Regardless, they have the comfort of knowing that Jimmy Fallon is on their side. ”We’ve set up an environment here where he has the trust of guests, where they’ll come in to do these crazy things,” Purcell says. ”That’s the secret to the virality of our show — that, and we happen to tape five hours of television every week.”
To keep things feeling fresh, the staff likes to rotate the games as much as possible, and also invent new ones. ”We’ll spend a meeting going through weeks of celebrities coming up and figuring out what to do with them,” Fallon says.
Landing on a bit is only part of it — they have to make sure it works, too. The R&D phase varies. ”Face Balls, that was something we did in the office as a joke,” explains Fallon. ”You sit in two chairs with a beach ball, and you just throw it as hard as you can. No one’s getting hurt, but it’s so stupid and funny to watch.” Then there’s the trickier matter of getting a celebrity to agree to it. In the case of Face Balls, the team wasn’t sure if anyone would sign on, so they kept pitching it. ”Julia Roberts was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do something!’ We pitched her 10 ideas, and one of them was Face Balls. She was like, ‘Done — Face Balls.’ We were like, ‘You sure? Of all the ones we pitched, you wanna do Face Balls?’ And she says, ‘Totally, let’s do it. It’s never been done. I wanna see if it’s fun.”’
This is bad news for the show’s interns, who have to endure whatever the guests will endure — more than once. ”They’re our guinea pigs,” Lieb says. ”Our segment producers go through the process and work out the mechanism of it. Like the game Pop Quiz, where someone had the idea of having water balloons that pop on people’s heads when they get quizzed. They spent basically three months fine-tuning that one in rehearsal time, sticking interns in barber chairs and popping balloons on their heads.”
There have been duds, though. ”We had a kayak race with Cameron Diaz, where we put wheels on the kayak,” Fallon recalls. ”It was just okay. It didn’t really work because I kept falling out of the kayak. She was a good sport, but we probably won’t do that again.”
The immense amount of rehearsal required to make the show pop on screen can be daunting, but Fallon has the training for it from his days on Saturday Night Live. ”They’re amazing people on Saturday Night Live. But I feel like we’re equal, if not better, than that crew,” he continues. ”Because Saturday Night Live, they are truly magicians — but we’re doing this five days a week…. It just feels like show business — it feels like you’re doing a variety show! There’s no net. The audience is just there, and they’re into it.”
Well, part of the audience is. A large portion of the show’s viewers aren’t at the taping or in front of their TV screens at home — they only watch the show online. That’s why The Tonight Show now has a dedicated digital team led by Purcell. And their efforts are paying off, even if it’s not always in the traditional way. ”I’m not getting more money if I do a bit that goes viral,” Fallon notes. ”No one is. I don’t get anything. Not even a Starbucks gift card — nothing! We’re in it for the fun of it. If I do ‘Ew!’ with will.i.am, it’s for fun. Can we get it to chart on the Billboard 100? That’d be cool. Can we do a video? We can probably figure out some sort of budget thing — why not? How many things can we get into pop culture right now?” His most recent victory: getting ”Lip Sync Battle” its own spin-off on Spike TV.
It’s a warm late-November evening, and NBC is having Jimmy Fallon do some manual labor. He’s outside 30 Rock’s Sixth Avenue entrance holding the giant electrical plug that will light up The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon‘s very own marquee.
NBC doesn’t make a habit of handing out marquees, so a lot of people have come to share the moment with Fallon: his staff, family members, network brass, and (behind barricades) a large crowd of fans on the street. They all cheer him on as he plugs it in, and once it’s lit — his name in blue neon — Fallon poses for pictures, first with Lorne Michaels, who executive-produces the show, and then with his parents.
”This is definitely the most exciting year of my life,” Fallon says later. He’s not just talking about The Tonight Show: He and his wife, Nancy, are also busy raising their 16-month-old daughter, Winnie. ”The baby and the show are both starting and growing. It’s interesting to raise both of them.” Sometimes he manages to multitask. ”In the morning, when my wife watches the show — we can’t stay up that late — the baby will see me and yell, ‘Dada!’ She’s really becoming a comedy nerd. She’ll know all the members of Monty Python before she’s 2.” The family man even bought a truck, which he keeps at his house in the Hamptons. ”I cruise around in that thing, play country music. Makes me feel like a man. I think I’m going to start wearing cologne.”
But thanks to his rising star, there are some places the man can’t take his truck anymore. ”It’s hard to get to the movies,” he says. These days, he says he has to either catch an advance screening or just wait until it hits iTunes. ”It’s the point of no return — once the movie’s out, I can’t see it. I haven’t even seen Guardians of the Galaxy yet.”
Still, Fallon’s longtime friends insist he hasn’t changed. ”There’s obviously a tremendous amount more recognition, but he’s the same person,” says Drew Barrymore, who costarred with Fallon in 2005’s Fever Pitch. (That’s also where Fallon met his future wife, Barrymore’s producing partner.) ”He’s as friendly as when we were all doing Fever Pitch. When you go out with him, he talks to every single person that he encounters. He entertains — we went to Rao’s the other night, and he’s singing and hanging out with everybody. Who you see on that TV is who you get in real life.”
Fallon still gets awestruck when he reflects on his year. ”I’ll always remember the first night, when U2 performed on the roof. I was running through the halls to get upstairs and see the band, but Stephen Colbert had dumped pennies down my jacket and down the back of my shirt at the beginning of the show. So I was running, and pennies were falling out of my pants and my sleeves! We ran up, got the elevators, went all the way up to the Top of the Rock — and Bono was looking at me like, ‘I’m gonna go for it.’ You could feel it, this was going to be something cool. It was such a moment. It was a New York City moment, it was a music moment. It checked off a lot of the boxes of how powerful TV could be.”
His dream is for the show to feel like that every night. ”I wish we had more time,” he says. ”I could do another half hour. I could do an hour-and-a-half show, easy. Because we just run out of time — we have so many ideas and things we want to do.”
Tops on his to-do list? ”I’ve gotta up my lip-synch game,” he says. ”I’ve gotta beat Emma Stone at lip-synching. That’s my 2015 goal.”
Jimmy Beat World
No matter how you slice it, Fallon was late-night’s biggest winner in 2014
Most Viral YouTube Clip of 2014: Lip Sync Battle With Emma Stone — 36,369,918 views
Twitter Followers: 17,600,000
YouTube Subscribers: 5,190,728
Season-to-Date Average Viewers: 3,955,000