There’s a bit of folk wisdom employed by old-school football coaches seeking to keep their youthful charges’ celebratory enthusiasm in check: "When you get to the end zone, act like you’ve been there before."
Jimmy Fallon took a page from that playbook on his opening night as host of NBC’s The Tonight Show, delivering a debut that was short on gimmicks but offered generous helpings of humility, familiarity and star power.
Fallon raised the curtain on a new era for The Tonight Show on Monday, 25 minutes later than his usual 10:35 p.m. start because of NBC’s ongoing Winter Olympics coverage, and the opening-title sequence (which Fallon later revealed was directed by Spike Lee) immediately established that Tonight is, once again, a New York City affair.
The 39-year-old host was played onstage by late-night TV’s funkiest house band ever, The Roots, and Fallon got directly down to business with a sort of pre-monologue monologue that was more about expressing gratitude and awe than looking for big laughs.
He did take a couple of obvious and necessary jabs at the late-night franchise’s recent history, including the observation that "I’m Jimmy Fallon, and I’ll be your host for now" and a quick thank-you to Tonight’s previous hosts, "Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno."
Fallon took time to thank his wife and daughter, his parents (who were in the audience, and to whom Fallon offered, "I wish I could have gotten you better seats, but it’s a very hot show, Dad"), The Roots and announcer Steve Higgins, and actually got a bit choked up when he stopped to consider the significance of this moment in TV history.
And then, after asking Higgins to re-introduce him, Fallon re-emerged from behind the backstage curtain and delivered a more conventional joke-laden monologue, cracking wise about the Olympics and NBC’s coverage of same.
Once seated behind the desk on what revealed itself to be a very stylish new Studio 6B set for Tonight, Fallon thanked his fans for their support and then added, "And to my buddy who bet me I’d never be the host of The Tonight Show — and you know who you are — you owe me 100 bucks, buddy," prompting an amusingly eye-popping parade of celebrity debt-payers that included Robert De Niro, Tina Fey, Joe Namath, Rudy Guiliani (NYC’s former mayor, who loudly thanked Fallon for bringing the show back to New York), Mariah Carey, Tracy Morgan, Joan Rivers, Kim Kardashian, Seth Rogen, Lindsay Lohan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mike Tyson, Lady Gaga (in a revealingly Gaga-esque outfit) and Stephen Colbert (who settled his $100 score with a bucket of pennies and a "Welcome to 11:30, bitch!" greeting).
Calling on a running gag from his Late Night hosting days, Fallon introduced a taped bit called The Evolution of Hip Hop Dance, in which he and not-yet-introduced first guest Will Smith worked their way through a series of real and bogus dance moves to a Roots-provided soundtrack.
The high point — literally — of Fallon’s first night was undoubtedly U2’s musical contribution, which featured a performance of their new single, Invisible, on the rooftop of NBC’s headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza (which, later, prompted Fallon to ask, "Is that the highest you guys have ever performed?"). Thanks to some epic camera angles and the expected U2 musical excellence, it was a stellar moment that will surely live on in future Tonight Show highlight reels.
Once introduced officially as Fallon’s first guest, Smith was chatty and amiable, and the host demonstrated how far he’s advanced as an interviewer since first taking over Late Night five years ago. While still a bit too fan-boy-ish at times, Fallon is decidedly more engaged and conversational than he once was.
U2 returned for the show’s final segment, with all four members of the band joining in the couch banter for a few minutes before Fallon asked them to do an acoustic version of Ordinary Love, the Oscar-nominated tribute song from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. It was a tremendous show-closer.
Overall, Fallon’s debut was a fast-moving first hour, and the new host and his supporting crew made a wise choice when they decided to take a business-as-usual approach to their Tonight Show arrival. Simply put, Fallon looked very much like this is where he belongs.