Feb 6, 2020
The Tonight Show: Will Fallon outlast Conan?
Jimmy Fallon has just completed his first full week as the new host of The Tonight Show. So how’d he do?
I think it’s fair to say that The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon is no shocking departure from Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The Roots is still the house band, Steve Higgins is still his Ed McMahon, the show is still produced by Lorne Michaels, and still taped in New York City. After starting off his first episode with an ingratiating near-apology for being the new host, Fallon went right back to business as usual. Of course, the guests last week, ranging from Will Smith to Jerry Seinfeld to Justin Timberlake to Michelle Obama were of a higher wattage than what he normally gets, but the jokes and bits haven’t changed one bit.
Fallon certainly isn’t the funniest late night host (that honor would go to Stephen Colbert, who’s somehow sustained a single brilliant piece of performance art for eight years straight), but he might be the most likeable. Unlike some hosts who come off as being above telling jokes and talking to vapid celebrities (coughDavecough), Fallon is obviously having the time of his life.
In short, if you were a fan of Fallon’s Late Night, you’ll probably like Fallon’s Tonight Show. If you hated him on Late Night, seeing him an hour earlier is not going to change your mind. And if you were a fan of Jay Leno… Well, um… I’m not quite sure what to say to you. After all, who, exactly, is a fan of Jay Leno? And what do they look for in a late night talk show? Entertainment? Comedy? Something boring enough to fall asleep to? Despite being the number one show in late night for over 15 years, I have yet to meet anyone who actually admits to having watched Leno on a regular basis.
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Well… perhaps I can get the ball rolling. Because when Jay took over back in 1992, I must confess I was an avid viewer. It’s hard to imagine now, but twenty years ago, Jay’s monologues were… not “funny”, exactly, but certainly tolerable by late night standards. His jokes were definitely sharper and more topical than those of Johnny Carson, who had been phoning it in for years as a man with no real competition left.
I suppose I was technically a “Leno fan” back then, with the caveat that I only had about eight channels to choose from, and at least five of them were showing infomercials at that hour. But then college came along, and I had far better things to do at 11:30 at night (most of them involving alcohol), and I forgot all about The Tonight Show for a long, long time.
Somewhere in the intervening years, Leno had started phoning it in just as badly as Carson, doing embarrassingly awful, hacky material. And yet somehow, he became the highest rated late night host and stayed that way until the bitter end. And I know a lot of people reading this think that Jay was only popular with senior citizens who don’t understand how to work the remote control well enough to change the channel, but the fact is, Jay not only had the most total viewers, he was also consistently beating other talk shows in the coveted younger demographics. It’s a bitter pill for some to swallow, but there really is a whole other America out there that they know nothing about, made up of people who watch Duck Dynasty and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Teen Mom, who think of Fox News as a legitimate source of news, and who love Jay Leno.
Those who prefer to think of themselves as hipper and smarter than the rubes in flyover country all hated Jay Leno, of course, partly for edging Letterman out of the Tonight Show gig (a whole other saga in itself) but mainly for making millions off of being a lazy, unfunny hack. And this all came bursting to the forefront when Conan O’Brien took over The Tonight Show, only to have Leno take it back nine months later.
Giving O’Brien the show made some kind of bizarre sense at the time; Conan was making rumblings about moving to Fox and possibly chipping away at Leno’s audience. NBC was already getting depressing numbers at 10PM, and were considering giving up on the hour completely. And then came the bright idea: Why not give Conan The Tonight Show, move Jay to primetime to keep him at NBC, and solve the problem of the 10PM hour all in one fell swoop? A talk show was bound to get lower ratings at 10 o’clock, but surely that would be offset by lower costs relative to airing five scripted dramas.
What they failed to take into account were the NBC affiliates, who make a large chunk of their ad dollars from their 11PM newscasts. Thanks to Jay’s crappy lead-in, ratings at NBC stations all over the country nosedived. A number of affiliates were even making noise about coming up with their own 10PM programming to replace Jay Leno.
A lot of people think Conan was forced out because of terrible ratings, and yes, he was frequently getting beaten by Letterman, but the simple fact is, the network had to get Jay Leno out of primetime at all costs. NBC announced they were moving Jay back to 11:30 to do a half-hour, bumping The Tonight Show to midnight. Jay was onboard with this (of course he was), but Conan saw it as a huge step backwards and refused to go along with it (while spinning some BS about it being the “destruction” of the show’s “legacy”). And due to contractual payouts, getting rid of Leno was a far more expensive proposition than letting Conan walk, so NBC chose the latter.
[Note: A lot of the above information comes from Bill Carter’s fascinating book The War for Late Night, a full chronicling of the Leno/Conan Tonight Show debacle, and a must-read for fans of late night and anyone who enjoyed his earlier book on the Leno/Letterman Tonight Show debacle.]
While the ratings may not have been the main driver behind Conan’s departure, I would imagine if everyone who branded themselves “Team Coco” on Facebook and Twitter in the wake of the fiasco had actually been watching Conan’s show the whole time, he’d probably still be on The Tonight Show now. The #TeamCoco hashtag should have more accurately been the #TeamFuckJayLeno tag, because it obviously was not about how much people loved Conan O’Brien. Witness the ratings for Conan’s TBS show, which started strong but are now below Letterman, Kimmel, Stewart, Colbert, and for a while there, Chelsea Handler. Nothing against Chelsea’s show, but… Jesus.
Jay Leno came off as the big villain in the situation, and it does require a somewhat sociopathic mindset to jump right back into a show you already gave up, but the truth is, there’s plenty of blame to go around. What often gets forgotten in the story is that Conan more or less engineered his own downfall. He forced NBC to give him The Tonight Show, essentially pushing Jay Leno out even though he was still number one. It takes a certain amount of hubris to think you deserve a job more than the guy who’s currently the most successful person doing it.
But it appears NBC was just as ready to be rid of Jay, because here we are, less than five years later, and despite still having the number one show, Leno has been forced out again. It would seem Jay’s tarnished and tragically unhip image isn’t worth the pittance of 18-49 year olds who watch him over Dave. And so we get to start this process all over again with another new Tonight Show host. And the question remains: Will history repeat itself? Or will Jimmy Fallon outlast Conan O’Brien?
Of course, a lot of things are different now. Jay Leno no longer works for NBC, so the network doesn’t have an easy fallback plan if Fallon doesn’t work out. Actually, it’s hard to imagine exactly what would happen if Fallon tanked. Seth Meyers won’t be ready anytime soon, and there’s really no one else with a proven track record of hosting a late night show who would be willing and able to step into the role. Fallon will likely get the benefit of at least a couple of seasons, because really, what other options does NBC have?
The network has to be assuming that Fallon will get lower ratings than Leno. But this is offset by a couple of big factors: 1) Fallon and his staff are a whole lot cheaper than Jay’s crew, and of course, 2) Fallon is a much bigger viral sensation than Jay or Conan ever was. Websites are constantly posting clips from Fallon for easy clicks, like him “slow jamming” the news with President Obama or performing a Willow Smith song with Bruce Springsteen. How often does a clip from TBS’s Conan show up in your Facebook feed? And when was the last time Jay’s show went viral (for something other than stealing someone else’s material without credit)?
And Fallon makes it possible by possessing other talents besides standing in one place and telling jokes. He can do hip-hop dancing with Will Smith; he can peform a rap medley with Justin Timberlake; he can dress up in drag for an SNL-type sketch with Will Ferrell and Michelle Obama. Kimmel and Stewart aren’t doing that. Letterman sure as hell is not about to do any of that. (Actually, I think about 90% of the reason Dave still does his show is to avoid being home with the wife.)
Fallon might not be that funny, and he might not get stellar ratings, but he seems to be going where TV is headed: bite-sized chunks of entertainment that can be shared on blogs and social media and hopefully get people interested enough to actually watch the show (or at least DVR it). Lorne Michaels already perfected the formula with SNL and “Lazy Sunday” and “Dick in a Box”, and now looks to be applying that same formula to The Tonight Show.
And Fallon’s humor seems a lot more suitable for 11:30PM. Conan has the kind of humor that, for one reason or another, was way funnier at 12:30. And they also made a huge mistake forcing Conan and his entire staff to move to L.A., because Conan simply doesn’t fit the Southern California vibe. It might end up being a stroke of genius that they kept Fallon in New York.
Also, and this may be a strange thing to point out, but Fallon’s new set (in Rockefeller Center’s studio 6B, the home of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show until 1972) doesn’t appear to be significantly larger than his old set. I think one of the problems with Conan’s Tonight Show was that they moved him from a rather small studio into what seemed to be a huge, cavernous space in Universal City. His brand of low-key, self-effacing, are-we-really-doing-this-on-TV humor just died in that setting.
So, short answer: Yes, I expect Fallon to stick around longer than the seven months that The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien was on the air. It’d be kind of insane if he didn’t. But then again, it’s kind of insane that Conan only lasted that long in the first place.
Having said that, I also expect there to be a real horse race for the late night audience. Younger viewers at 11:30 will be split between Fallon, Kimmel, and to a lesser extent, Colbert. Older viewers might gravitate towards Letterman (as they did when Conan took over Tonight), though the “get off my lawn” attitude Dave has projected for the last decade will be off-putting to most of Leno’s audience. Honestly, I think the majority of Jay’s fans are probably just going to go to bed early.
And it’s important to bear in mind that compared to even ten years ago, the audience for these shows has dwindled to basically nothing. Adult Swim gets higher ratings than any of them. At some point, it does get a bit silly that so much press is being devoted to late night “wars” where the victors are claiming bragging rights over a tenth of a ratings point.
I guess a lot of TV writers still remember when The Tonight Show meant something, but nowadays, there are a thousand other more rewarding things a person could be doing at 11:30PM (only some of them involving alcohol). Fallon does a decent enough show, but the internet is on 24 hours a day and I guarantee you can find fresher, funnier material online any time you want it. Of course Fallon is going to get beat on a regular basis by Kimmel and Letterman, but it doesn’t really matter, because the whole talk show format itself doesn’t really matter anymore. The days of an undisputed king of late night are long over.