'This is happening," Jimmy Fallon tells himself, as he begins to panic. "This is really happening." He's all of 20 minutes into a brand-new gig as a talk-show host, which suddenly seems to be going as well as his recently abandoned movie career. In other words, badly. Fallon's ill-chosen first-ever guest, Robert De Niro, has decided to take a playfully sadistic approach to their conversation, smirking as he contributes little more than New York-accented monosyllables and the occasional shrug. The interview stalls. Time slows down. (Months later, Fallon's wife, Nancy Juvonen, will describe it as "the longest minute of his life.") As the awkwardness escalates, Fallon feels flop sweat blooming beneath his crisp black suit; his forehead glistens under the hot studio lights. He begins to stammer. His internal monologue speeds up:
"This could go any way. He's right there, and I'm right here. This could go any way. This could be the end of my career."
A lot of professionally funny people are permanent residents in this particular psychological neighborhood, at the corner of self-doubt and self-loathing. But for Fallon, this is just a rare visit. For the most part, he's the least tortured comedian imaginable. "Making comedies, you end up knowing people that you would swear would be the funnest people ever in the whole world," says Juvonen, an energetic blonde who's been Drew Barrymore's production partner for 16 years, and first got to know her husband when he starred with Barrymore in 2005's Fever Pitch. "And they're not. They're really mean and depressed and hideous people. But Jimmy sees life as an opportunity and happiness as a choice. He's cheery in the morning. He wakes up happy. He gets the joke of life." The guy is so relentlessly positive and optimistic that even his own mother says she sometimes finds it overwhelming.
In that first show, from March 2009, you can see the moment when Fallon recovers - when he relaxes, smiles and snaps himself back into focus. He steers the interview back to a prepared bit where he does an impression of De Niro in Taxi Driver (and, in turn, De Niro responds with an effeminate "impression" of Fallon in his 2004 flop Taxi). It kills, and the audience sounds as relieved as Fallon looks. A couple of segments later, he's bro-ing down with Justin Timberlake, trading John Mayer impersonations. All doubt vanishes: The guy can do this. (On the other hand, De Niro signed the show's guest book that day with these encouraging words: "Jimmy, I think you really fucked up. Love, Robert De Niro.")
"I've gotten so much better since Day One - it's not even two years but I know how to handle this thing now. I can do this," says Fallon, who also made a more practical change: "I've lowered the air conditioning in the studio to a point where you can actually store meat in there safely."
This year, while Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno engaged in their noisy late-night war, Fallon kept his head down, kept working. As O'Brien dropped out and grew his beard, Fallon shaved every morning and went to the studio, determined to put on a show. Eventually, with help from his secret weapon, house band the Roots - who fueled ultraviral moments like Timberlake and Fallon rapping through the history of hip-hop - Fallon became the most retweeted, most Hulu-ed, most TiVo-ed man in late night.
He's also a new breed of talk-show host: He sings (duetting with artists from Bruce Springsteen to Paul McCartney, when he's not leading his crew in their loving Glee parody, "6-bee"); he dances; he impersonates Neil Young; he stars in a serial vampire parody called "Suckers"; he plays beer pong with Betty White; he spends more time thinking about three-minute viral clips than TV ratings.
Having this particular job was never a dream for Fallon - his only real goal in life, the wish he made when he blew out birthday candles, was to be in the cast of Saturday Night Live. He made it at age 23, was a breakout star by his fourth episode, and stayed for six seasons before heading off to try to be a movie star. In many ways, he's picking up where he left off when he quit the show - even reprising old bits such as the "I Wish It Was Christmas Today" song, though this time with the Strokes' Julian Casablancas to help him sing it.
But if anything, Late Night is even more suited to his abilities and temperament. "He has his own show that he uses all his talent on, and he can take it in any direction he wants," says SNL and Late Night producer Lorne Michaels. "I think he understands how well his life turned out." Adds Amy Poehler, one of Late Night's most frequent guests, "He likes to talk to strangers way more than I would ever want to. He's the kind of guy that would go to the airport bar and want to talk to everybody there. His ability to talk to strangers is not necessarily something I relate to, but it's genuine, it's not bullshit. It wasn't invented so he could be good at doing a talk show."
Fallon's designated role is superempowered superfan: geeking out over his endless array of enthusiasms for video games, music, comedy, movies and food. As a kid, he spent hours in his Saugerties, New York, bedroom, working on impressions, listening to Weird Al, Dr. Demento and audio recordings of SNL episodes, and playing guitar. The set of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon sometimes feels like a permanent window on that room - except that he now gets Paul Simon, Steve Martin and Dana Carvey to come over for play dates. "He's like your little brother who wants to do a show for everybody at Thanksgiving," says his old "Weekend Update" partner, Tina Fey. "But he's gotten good at doing the show."
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