Jimmy Fallon is the reigning king of late night television. You can’t really argue otherwise at this point. This will likely continue to be the case for many years. He’s still a relatively young man, especially when you think about where David Letterman and Jay Leno were when they stepped aside, and it will likely be a while until somebody comes and usurps his throne. Get used to it.
This fact makes a lot of people unhappy. Fallon has a lot of detractors, many of them vocal. This is not a surprise. Fallon is a populist, which is part of the crux of his, well, popularity, and there is a certain brand of comedy fan who eschews all things populist and popular. Now, there are many critiques one can lob at Fallon fairly. He remains an awful interviewer, owed primarily to his abject obsequiousness. He is the guy that folks like Donald Trump go to when they want to have a breezy, hassle free interview. Fallon loves, or claims to love, everything. He’s got some charms, yes, and he can be funny, but he’s a pushover to the highest order.
This is only one aspect of late night television, though. It may be Fallon’s weak point, and by now it seems abundantly clear he has no interest in improving in this area, but it’s not where his bread is buttered. Fallon’s ethos is one of fun and games and frivolity. He is the one who brought the “party” atmosphere to late night, and it has paid off in spades.
While there are surely those who complain about this as well, it can’t be the execution you execute with. Fallon does actually make all his silly games and other assorted nonsense quite humorous and charming. Sure, you could describe an episode of The Tonight Show as being, like, Fallon and Channing Tatum throwing eggs at each other and then maybe Fallon sings some dumb song with Billy Joel or something. The thing is, though, that’s not exactly a bad thing.
Pointed, smart comedy is great. Satire is good and important. Fallon’s games are profoundly simple and silly and allow celebrities to promote themselves as being fun and willing to take a joke. There is a subtle cynical edge in that respect, but that’s what late night television is built on. All Fallon did is figure out how to exploit this fact in the shrewdest way possible. A lot of his games are fun, and his sketches are funny. Fallon is a funny guy when he’s just being, you know, a guy. He’s not much of an actor, or even much of a joke teller, but as a guy just goofing around, he’s funnier than most. That sketch with the mannequin hands? Always funny. The dumb little games that are just celebrities and/or Fallon getting messy and/or wet? Kind of amusing. It’s low ceiling/high floor type stuff, designed to be inoffensive and mildly amusing. And when they play an actual game, such as Password or Pictionary, it’s quite entertaining. If only they’d play a round of Match Game.
Fallon turned his version of a late night show, starting with Late Night, into an ersatz party, and it works because he’s a good party host, and because it provides what people, evidently, wanted from a late night show. You don’t have to pay a lot of attention. It’s not highbrow or smart or esoteric comedy. There is little nuance in two dudes slamming eggs over their heads, but you can still find it funny. That’s not to say that Fallon, and his show, aren’t capable of aiming higher, but mildly ambitious middlebrow comedy is the order of the day.
There is a problem stemming from Fallon’s success, though, although it has nothing to do with Fallon. It is common in sports for teams to try and copy what the reigning champion did to find success. Whatever they did, the other teams assume, it has to be the way to go, because it has a proven track record. Fallon is the TV equivalent of a sporting champion, and now the genre is becoming more and more remade in his image. Late night is becoming increasingly nice and increasingly a place to foster a “fun hang out” vibe, and this is not good.
The worst example of this is represented by The Late, Late Show with James Corden. When the show first debuted, it seemed like, maybe, it could turn out alright. It very much has not. Corden and company have so clearly tried to foster the “party” vibe that Fallon has ridden to success, but they have failed. Corden combines the obsequiousness of Fallon with the banal cheekiness of a David Brent. His show is dull, at best, and a cringe inducing nightmare at worst. His games all fall flat. His game “Nuzzle Whaaa?” should be a parody of lazy celebrity game ideas. It should be from some modern version of The Larry Sanders Show. Instead it’s all too real.
Another recent addition, Stephen Colbert, who took over for Letterman, has been good. However, if you were expecting the man who rose to fame satirizing and parodying right wing politics to bring an edge to late night, you were wrong. Colbert does counterprogram Fallon by being a cerebral show, with interviews with a lot of CEOs and science types and politicians. He is, however, a very nice guy, and, frankly, an overly nice guy. When Colbert chastised his audience for booing Ted Cruz, it became all too clear there would be little edge to Colbert’s Late Show. If you won’t accept somebody as odious as Ted Cruz being booed, you’ve clearly set the bar for niceness high.
Seth Meyers does bring a little of the Saturday Night Live style of political humor to his show, but it’s a general fun and light evening of television as well. Conan is still Conan, an inveterate goofball. Jimmy Kimmel is a 48-year-old man who still thinks pranks are funny, so the less said about him the better. Conan and Kimmel are also veterans of the realm that predate Fallon. Everybody else, though, is following in Fallon’s footsteps, and they all seem to be trying to mimic his success as well. Granted, nobody apes him as baldly as Corden, but Fallon, as the king of late night, is clearly influencing how this generation of late night television is presented.
Any sort of homogeneity in television isn’t good, but this is particularly disheartening. It’s not all about wishing for guys like Letterman and Craig Ferguson to return. It’s not anti-fun, either. It’s more about a desire for variety, for some edge in late night. Once, just once, it’d be nice to see a late night host be kind of an asshole again. Fallon has steered into the curve of late night by becoming an ever loyal supporter of celebrities and their projects. Can’t somebody bristle at being asked to be a marketing stooge even a little? Even if it is by just admitting what’s going on? Letterman called John McCain on his bullshit. Colbert won’t even call Donald Trump on his.
Jimmy Fallon’s show is pretty good, especially if you eschew the interview portions. He has succeeded in making it a fun show despite being essentially devoid of any edginess or daring. Which, again, is not a condemnation. It’s just a fact. The problem is that, presumably owing to Fallon’s success, no late night show is aiming to be much more. The edge in late night is gone. Nobody is willing to show contempt for a guest, or, as Ferguson often did, for the genre itself. Not everybody is as good of a party host, and not everybody should be a party host. We need a late night show to be counterprogramming to Fallon, and to the modern state of late night shows. Then, when this show becomes the most popular in late night, and everybody follows in their footsteps, we’ll look to folks like Fallon for a respite.
Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.