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And Tonight's first star is...

Fallon going back to the future when Leno hits the road

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Jay Leno welcomes Jimmy Fallon.

ANDREW ECCLES / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge Image

Jay Leno welcomes Jimmy Fallon.

PASADENA, Calif. -- The Tonight Show is going to make Jimmy Fallon a star.

It could fairly be argued that the Late Night host and former SNL regular's showbiz status has long since been guaranteed, but when he takes over TV's most storied talk-show franchise next month, his stardom will be recognized every night in the opening-title credits for the show.

After 22 seasons in which Jay Leno's name was preceded by "with" in the show's title (The Tonight Show with Jay Leno), NBC will return to the wording employed by Johnny Carson, Steve Allen and Jack Paar by identifying the latest incarnation as The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

"We were looking at the different (past) logos, and I said, 'Well, it was always The Tonight Show Starring...,'" Fallon said when he and Tonight Show executive producer Josh Lieb made an appearance during NBC's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles. "It was always, '... Starring Jack Paar,' or '...Starring Steve Allen,' or '...Starring Johnny Carson.' Then Carson moved it to L.A., and it was '...Starring Johnny Carson.' Then when Jay took it over, no one talked about it, but all of a sudden it was 'with.'

"And it's fine that it was 'with,' but 'starring' makes it more like, 'Hey, we're in the business.' It's show business. It's glamorous. It's Hollywood. It's kind of fun. I like 'Starring.' ... It's an homage, a little tip of the cap to the origins of the show, so I thought it would be perfect."

Added Lieb, "'Starring' is a vastly more exciting word than 'with.'"

Stellar sentence structure won't be the only big change viewers notice when The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon premières on Feb. 17. There will also be a major geographical shift, as the show moves from its longtime home in NBC's Burbank headquarters back to its original home in New York City.

It's a move that Fallon, a native of the Big Apple, fully endorses.

"It's been out (in L.A.) for 40-something years, but it started in New York," he said. "Why not bring it back to New York? What's the worst that can happen? It's just a beautiful city. When I think of New York, I think of nighttime -- I just think it's the perfect place, where it should be. I think of the lights and Times Square and Broadway and nightlife and the excitement and the glitz and the glamour of all that is The Tonight Show. And I feel like (guest) booking-wise, it's never been a problem for us. We've had the president of the United States on our show. I mean, you can't get bigger than that."

Fallon's first guest on The Tonight Show won't be POTUS, however. His first night as host will feature an appearance by Will Smith and a musical contribution by U2. Worth noting is the fact that Fallon's first week of shows will be pushed back to 11 p.m. by NBC's coverage of the Winter Olympics.

Leno's final week on The Tonight Show will include guest appearances by Betty White (Feb. 3), Matthew McConaughey, Charles Barkley and Lyle Lovett (Feb. 4), Sandra Bullock and Blake Shelton (Feb. 5) and, on his final night, Feb. 6, Billy Crystal (Leno's first guest back in 1992) and Garth Brooks.

Seth Meyers will take up residence in Fallon's old Late Night chair on Feb. 24. As previously announced, his first guest will be another former SNLer, Amy Poehler.

One thing is certain as NBC prepares for its biggest late-night shakeup in a couple of decades. This farewell to Leno is going to go a lot more smoothly than 2009's ill-fated Jay-to-Conan Tonight Show transition, which ended disastrously with O'Brien being forced out and Leno returning to The Tonight Show less than a year after he left.

"When after the whole Conan/Jay thing went down, I was following Jay (as Late Night's new host)," Fallon recalled. "He was back at (10:30); I called up Jay, and I said, 'Hey, I just want to let you know that I'm not gunning for your position at all. I'm very happy at 12:30, 7 a.m., whenever they put me on.'

"So he goes, 'I appreciate that.' I said, 'And when eventually you decide to step down, let's do it the right way.' And he said, 'Yeah, of course.' And you just felt it was different from then on. We talk to each other every couple weeks, and he's always giving me advice, all the way up till now. He called me and said, 'I think this is going to be the year,' and I said, 'All right.' And he goes, 'I'd love for you to be the next guy. I think you're going to be great.' "

It all seems so... happy. But somewhere -- say, over on the Warner Bros. Studios soundstage, where U.S. cable's TBS network tapes its late-night show -- it's entirely possible that Conan O'Brien is not smiling.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 23, 2014 C3

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