Other than a revamped studio, a Spike Lee-directed opening sequence and a jazzy, funkified new theme song, the debut episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon bore a striking resemblance to its recently concluded Late Night incarnation. And why shouldn’t it? So much of what made Late Night With Jimmy Fallon such a success was the 39-year-old host’s sheer enjoyment of every facet of his job – and a happy Jimmy Fallon is a New York Jimmy Fallon. For the first time in 42 years, The Tonight Show has returned to its original home base, and if last night was any indication, I don’t think NBC needs to worry about moving its beloved late-night institution back to Burbank anytime soon.
Yes, Fallon’s Tonight Show is just a brighter, shinier and bigger (no kidding – Fallon was dwarfed by the expanded floor and Johnny Carson-size curtain, and keyboardists James Poyser and Kamal Gray from house band the Roots are no longer relegated to their balcony perches), version of Late Night, but the transition is already way more seamless than the host’s early days on Late Night. For instance, the opening monologue is still the weakest part of the show – but Fallon gets a pass for using the time to present his aw-shucks Tonight Show mission statement: “My goal is to make you laugh and put a smile on your face, so you’ll go to sleep with a smile on your face and live a longer life.” Translation: Come on, baby boomers, give me a chance! Paul McCartney’s a friend of mine!
Fallon remained in his comfort zone for his first hour as Tonight Show host, sticking to tried-and-true comedic bits from Late Night like “Superlatives.” Team USA’s Charlie White may have scored a gold medal in Sochi, but Fallon and his crew crowned the grinning, spangled ice dancer Most Likely to Say, “Fear not! For I bring tidings of great joy!” But Fallon didn’t wait too long before reminding the world that he’s pretty much the most powerful guy in show business these days. Jay Leno’s celebrity sendoff couldn’t trump the number of Fallon’s “buddies” who showed up to pay up their $100 in a bet that he would never host The Tonight Show. ICYMI, said buddies were, in order: Robert De Niro, Tina Fey, Joe Namath, Rudolph Giuliani, Mariah Carey, Tracy Morgan, Joan Rivers, Kim Kardashian, Seth Rogen, Lindsay Lohan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mike Tyson, Lady Gaga and Fallon’s former BFF for Six Months, Stephen Colbert. Colbert, now Fallon’s fellow timeslot rival, had only words of encouragement for his colleague: “Welcome to 11:30, bitch!”
Another refreshing appearance from the Late Night arsenal was the latest “Evolution of Dance” sketch, with guest Will Smith suiting up in his Nineties-era Fresh Prince of Bel-Air garb of baggy overalls and loud printed T-shirt to join an identically dressed Fallon for “The Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing.” Only quibble: With all the famous names parading around Studio 6B, they couldn’t get Alfonso Ribeiro to join Smith and Fallon for “the Carlton”? Although Smith wasn’t promoting any projects, he wisely refrained from mentioning his unfortunate cameo in Winter’s Tale during the interview portion.
It was undoubtedly a bold move for Fallon to have U2 as his first Tonight Show musical guest, mainly because the Irish megaband has a tendency to upstage anyone else within a 30-mile radius. But what better way to announce Fallon’s arrival as the latest contender for 11:30 p.m. glory than with a legendary rock group performing their newest single from the top of 30 Rockefeller Plaza? In a prerecorded set from Sunday, Bono and Co. kicked out the signature-Edge-riffy “Invisible.” And in case they couldn’t hear the foursome over in Jersey, U2 augmented their performance with a marching band from Rutgers University.
The final 10 minutes of the episode found Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. back in the studio with Fallon, fulfilling their destiny as rock & roll’s elder statesmen on their latest tour stop between the cover of The Hollywood Reporter and the Academy Awards. Bono poked fun at his uncanny ability to give a speech filled with gravitas over anything, even a Tonight Show mug, while Mullen further illustrated the vastness of the new studio by opting to sit a full couch away from his bandmates. (Die-hard U2 fans will undoubtedly make note of the fact that Fallon had never heard of the group’s landmark June 1983 concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.) As the earlier rooftop performance demonstrated, the words “understated” and “U2” don’t tend to fall in the same sentence. But on the rare occasion U2 takes it down a few notches, the result can be incredible, and that’s what happened when they did an acoustic rendition of their Oscar-nominated song “Ordinary Love.” Like Fallon, U2 don’t need marching bands or bombastic speeches to put on an unforgettable show (OK, having the Roots join in is always a welcome addition). Fallon’s energy and absolute love for what he does on a daily basis is why he has this gig. As Will Smith said at the outset, “People are coming [to The Tonight Show] because of you.” Celebrity may be fickle, but watching Jimmy Fallon trying to “Dougie” will never, ever get old.