More than 10 months after NBC named Jay Leno’s successor, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon premiered on Monday night with a fresh look, safe guests and a sprinkling of “surprises” to keep things interesting. Will the change in the guard guarantee your viewing?
THE OPENING | Having returned the venerable late-night program to New York City for the first time in almost 42 years, Fallon’s Spike Lee-directed opening credits set the tone with iconic imagery — Grand Central, Lincoln Center, a peanut vendor — as the host ostensibly makes his way into 30 Rock.
THE SET | I was worried upon reading some preliminary reports about the wood-heavy decor, but in execution it was better than expected (though the wooden skyline behind Fallon’s desk looks kitschy). The tall blue curtains that drape the stage are fresh and bright, while the cool gray couch nicely offsets the wood’s warm hues. The Roots get a prominent stage to Fallon’s left. The steep rise to the audience seats keeps everyone close to the stage, making for an intimate feel.
THE MONOLOGUE | For premiere night, there were actually two. First, Fallon came out to discuss his tenure — “I’m Jimmy Fallon and I’ll be your host… for now” — and thank those who came before him (naming Leno twice, natch). A quick bio for those who may be new to him was a nice, endearing touch, including doting nods to his wife and new daughter. He then introduced his parents in the audience — “I wish I could have gotten you better seats. Very hot show, Dad” — and promised viewers, “If you let me stick around long enough maybe I’ll get the hang of it.” With much sincerity, Fallon declared his goal is to “have fun” and send people to sleep with a smile on their face.
He then disappeared behind the curtain and bounded out anew, for his proper monologue, which opened with trite jokes about the Winter Olympics’ old-world host/contender Russia, and then jabs at Costas’ infamous pink eye. His first “bit” — “Tonight Show Superlatives” — offered a yearbook-style rundown of Olympic athletes and enjoyed about a 30 percent success rate. The evening’s first highlight arrived when Fallon jokingly invited those who doubted his Tonight Show fate to pony up the money they wagered. Cue a long succession of A-, B- and D-list stars, from the likes of Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert (“Welcome to 11:30, bitch!”) and Seth Rogen, to upcoming musical guest Lady Gaga, to Joan Rivers making her first Tonight Show appearance since Johnny Carson “disowned” her decades ago, to… who the eff keeps inviting Kardashians to these things?! Ugh, NBCU synergy fail. (Watch video.)
THE GUESTS | Will Smith first showed up in a pre-taped bit, “The Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing,” in which he and Fallon cycled through moves such as Running Man, The Leg Thing No One Can Do and The Carlton (see video below). Smith resurfaced on the couch, opening on a sincere note — “People are coming [to The Tonight Show] because of your heart,” he told its new host — before moving on to bland anecdotes about skydiving and snowboarding. Musical guest U2 delivered a wowza visual, performing their single “Invisible” on the rooftop of Rockefeller Center, at sunset, then assembled on the couch to give a solid if sleep-inducing acoustic performance. (The other guests on tap for Opening Week are Jerry Seinfeld, Kristen Wiig and Lady Gaga; Bradley Cooper and Tim McGraw; First Lady Michelle Obama, Will Ferrell and Arcade Fire; and — of course – Justin Timberlake.)
THE SUM TOTAL | It’s reckless to make any kind of call based on Fallon’s first, obviously calculated night. But at first blush the show seems vibrant and fresh, and the pace will only get snappier as he welcomes buzzier guests to the couch. (Smith is one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, yes, but when was his last big film?) Filling the shoes worn before by Carson, Paar et al, Fallon seems excited, not intimidated and yet reverent, and even all those stories off the ground and behind all that wood, the NYC sensibility reverberates.