Jimmy Fallon’s first five days as host of NBC’s Tonight Show have seen him attempting to strike a careful balance between the 11:35pm viewers he just inherited from Jay Leno, the 12:35am viewers he’s brought with him, and to some extent his longtime fans from his Saturday Night Live days a decade ago. In his inaugural Tonight Show episode, Fallon started off the show not by tooting his own horn but instead by painting himself and his cohorts as humble family men.
Fallon played up the fact that he’s from a small town of less than twenty thousand people, and featured his elderly parents in the audience. He then introduced his sidekick Steve Higgins as being from Iowa and having “wonderful kids.” The hip hop house band, The Roots, were introduced as being suitable for backing Tony Bennett. The intention was clear: Fallon wanted to sell Leno’s longtime midwest and small town audience on the idea that he and his crew, despite their New York City digs and twenty-first century humor, that they’re men of character. Selling them on the idea that he’s actually funny could come later.
The guests on opening night appeared to be aimed at Leno’s audience as well: Jerry Seinfeld, famous for being an everyman. Will Smith, who is these days about as mainstream-accepted as a rapper can be. And U2, which despite its progressive political leanings, still tends to play well with the 1980s nostalgia of American small towners. By the end of the week, Fallon had settled back into his own strengths and transitioned to a guest list which was more squarely aimed at ensuring he can keep the hipper audience he brought with him from the later time slot: First Lady Michelle Obama. Justin Timberlake. Old SNL cohort Kristin Wiig.
It’s a glance which he will have to continue to strike if he hopes to maintain Leno-like ratings of the long haul. Fallon’s strategy this far appears to have taken into account the fall of Conan O’Brien, who moved his own Late Night show to Los Angeles when he took over the Tonight Show, but otherwise essentially kept doing the same show he’d always been doing. He quickly lost much of Leno’s audience, to the point that Leno was subsequently squeezed back into a 10pm time slot before ultimately squeezing O’Brien off NBC entirely.
Leno was given the Tonight Show gig over David Letterman two-plus decades ago in part because it was believed that he could do a better job of straddling the middle of the road so as to amass an audience of big city viewers and small towners, liberals and conservatives, those on the coasts and in the midwest. NBC appears to believe Fallon can do the same. And while Fallon is simultaneously more hip and more quirky than Leno, his “man of the people” humility may well be what allows him to succeed. Jimmy Fallon’s first five episodes suggest that he is, at the least, accurately aware of the challenge at hand.