Jimmy Fallon ended his final Late Night by exiting the stage and walking just a few steps across the hall to his new studio at Rockefeller Center. In the first minutes of last night’s premiere of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, the short trip felt like an apt metaphor for the fact that not too much has changed. As Fallon walked out from behind a blue curtain, The Roots to one side and Steve Higgins to the other, it couldn’t help feeling less like The Tonight Show and more like “Not as Late Night.”
For Fallon personally, though, the distance between the shows couldn’t be more vast. The moment clearly had enormous significance for him; the emotion was obvious in his voice as he acknowledged his parents, wife and six-month-old daughter. He choked up again as he reflected on the idea of a kid today asking to stay up for him the same way Fallon asked his parents to let him watch Johnny Carson. (Never mind that today’s kid will prefer to find everything on YouTube the next day.)
After a slightly awkward wrap-up to his opening remarks, in which he felt compelled to explain how a monologue works, Fallon repeated his entrance fanfare and launched into the show proper, at ease on the shimmering new purple-and-gold set. The night’s funniest bit came with a shotgun blast of star power, as celebrities including Robert DeNiro, Tina Fey, Mariah Carey, Kim Kardashian, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lindsay Lohan, Mike Tyson and Lady Gaga each came onstage to “pay off” a $100 bet with Fallon that he’d never host The Tonight Show. Last in line was one of his direct competitors, Stephen Colbert, who dumped a bucket of pennies on Fallon before posing for a selfie and shouting, “Welcome to 11:30, bitch!”
Incidentally, Fallon’s not facing off against Colbert just yet, since NBC made the somewhat puzzling decision to premiere his Tonight Show during the back half of the Winter Olympics, pushing his launch week start time to midnight. Maybe I’m just not sporty enough to appreciate the Olympics as a high-profile lead-in, but for all the pomp and circumstance NBC has given to this transition, it feels like they’re burying Fallon’s first few shows under the Sochi snow drifts.
Regardless, Fallon kept the energy high throughout the hour, starting with a brassy new theme song and sleek opening titles directed by Spike Lee. The show was smart to recall one of Late Night’s best known video segments, “The Evolution of Mom Dancing” with Michelle Obama, this time with first guest Will Smith joining Fallon to demonstrate hip-hop moves. Musical guest U2 performed their new single “Invisible” at the Top of the Rock on the roof of Rockefeller Center, a gorgeous way to spotlight the show’s return to New York.
All in all, the first outing of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon was everything NBC needed it to be and pretty much everything I expected it to be. For all the history and prestige of the franchise, Fallon’s essentially doing the same job he was 10 days ago, so there was never any suspense about whether he’d pull this off. The same can’t be said for next week’s premiere of Late Night with Seth Meyers, when we get the more edgy excitement of seeing a brand-new show find itself. Meyers may not be a safe bet just yet, but right now he may be the most interesting one.