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Last week’s “Late Night” finale offered a vintage Jimmy Fallon mash-up: A time-tested song (“The Weight’) sung with some timeless friends (The Muppets) wrapped in a cool pop culture reference (the scene came straight out of “The Last Waltz,” with Fallon channeling The Band’s Levon Helm).
“The Weight,” about a traveller’s uncertain path, proved a bittersweet "Late Night” swan song for the usually buoyant Fallon, who is embarking on the trip of his life as he takes over “The Tonight Show” for NBC Monday. It’s journey into both the known and unknown to a studio just down the hall at 30 Rock and to a timeslot that’s an hour earlier, yet light years away.
Jimmy Fallon, at 39, knows his next stage could be his last – if he’s lucky. He’s tackling a timeslot in late night comedy where a precious few – Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and David Letterman – achieved lasting success, and many more failed.
The creator of “Downton Sixby” faces a numbers challenge as he tries to expand his audience. Leno’s final “Tonight Show” pulled in 14.6 million viewers – the most since 1998, before the Internet could mount much of a challenge to TV’s supremacy as the mass medium of the age. By comparison, Fallon’s final “Late Night” drew 6.6 million fans – the best in his nearly five years at the helm of the show that previously launched Letterman and Conan O’Brien to stardom.
Fallon’s so far enjoyed the luxury of one major direct competitor – CBS “Late, Late Show” host Craig Ferguson – who puts on a different kind of show, an intelligent quirkfest where he can experiment (his great trip to Scotland, his talking skeleton sidekick) largely under the radar.
Now Fallon joins a crowded, much-scrutinized field that includes CBS' Letterman, the most influential force in late night comedy since Carson, and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel who puts his own twist on the Letterman formula to appeal to younger audiences. Fallon also overlaps with TBS’ O’Brien, his “Late Night” predecessor and his cautionary tale for what could happen when translating “Saturday Night Live”-shaped humor to a “Tonight Show” audience. Then there’s Fallon’s faux enemy Stephen Colbert, who shares his love for music (and Ben & Jerry’s).
Still, Fallon arrives with some advantages. He grasped from the start the power of the Internet, and produced musical parodies designed to work as well on TV as online. His talent for song, buoyed by a great house band, The Roots, also allows him to mix pop culture genres, giving him cross-generational appeal that could be crucial to his “Tonight Show” fortunes. Fallon playing Neil Young alongside the real Bruce Springsteen singing Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair,” as wacky as it might seem, proved a defining “Late Night” moment.
There’s something about Fallon’s boyish personality that helps some big names find their silly side. He got President Obama to “slow jam” the news. Michelle Obama, Fallon’s partner in his “Evolution of Mom Dancing” bit will be among his first-week “Tonight Show” guests, along with his “History of Rap” partner Justin Timberlake.
Fallon’s mash-up mission, as The Muppets would attest, just might work as well an hour earlier, before a potentially bigger, more diverse crowd. Check out Fallon’s “Late Night” goodbye below as he vies to carry his weight on “The Tonight Show”:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.