There’s a great moment in the Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop documentary, when we hear the late-night host marvel at his life in a voiceover as we watch him shake hands with a fan, tell him to “call me Conan, please” and board a private jet.
“In improvisational acting, there’s this great rule I’ve used in my life which is ‘act as if,’” he says. “Act as if this is completely normal. ‘Of course I’m supposed to be interviewing Barack Obama’ or ‘of course I’m supposed to be playing guitar with Bruce Springsteen.’ And of course, there’s a big part of you inside that’s saying, ‘what are you talking about?’ This doesn’t feel completely real. This doesn’t feel completely real to me. This is just an extension of replacing David Letterman at age 30.”
Jimmy Fallon does not “act as if.”
The new Tonight Show host is not particularly skilled at playing it cool. He gushes over guests. He talks openly and emotionally about how he’s had the opportunity to fulfill not one but two lifelong dreams—appearing as a cast member on Saturday Night Live and hosting The Tonight Show. He talks about his wife and his new baby, and he waves at his parents in the audience and tells them he loves them. He’s got that omnipresent grin. There’s a reason his pal Justin Timberlake’s Fallon impression consists mostly of him saying “So great! So great.”
Being Jimmy Fallon does seem so great, though. Conan talks about interviewing Obama and playing with Springsteen; Fallon’s done both of those and danced with the former’s wife. The First Lady taught him how to dougie. How is he supposed to act as if that’s normal?
On paper, none of this adds up to “successful comedian.” So often, comedy is a field populated by men and women who don’t seem like they laugh very often when they’re not on the job. Cynicism and neuroses are big. Earnesty, happiness, even the occasional unmasked joy—not so much. It’s like when the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Lester Bangs, looks young William Miller up and down in Almost Famous (a movie Fallon was in, too—no coincidence) and smirks, “Man, there’s fucking nothing controversial about you.” Jadedness gets waved around like a badge of honor and mistaken for credibility.
But despite all this, Fallon’s killing it. He’s bringing in the ratings NBC had hoped for because he’s safe enough to appeal to the older Tonight Show audience but savvy enough to draw in younger viewers with Twitter-based bits, hip musical guests and healthy doses of well-placed ‘90s nostalgia. And, so far at least, everyone seems to be loving it. You still hear the occasional “Fallon sucks; he ruined every SNL sketch he was in by laughing” naysayer chirping once in a while, but I suspect most people agree that his laughing actually made those sketches better—serving as a little unexpected thrill, a reminder that the show is in fact live—and that his enthusiasm on his own show works the same way.
David Letterman’s got his “weird uncle” shtick. Jay Leno’s a pretty well-documented asshole. But Jimmy Fallon’s just a guy. He’s an extremely talented impressionist and a whiz at coming up with hilarious segments like Lip Sync Battles and the History of Rap. But ultimately, he’s just a nice guy living his dream, and that’s easy to root for, and easy for viewers to relate to. Sure, he asks softball questions. But hard-hitting journalism isn’t necessarily what America looks for in a late-night talk show. We want someone who will make us chuckle as we nod off to sleep, someone we can let into our homes every night, someone who will play beer-pong and charades with celebrities. Someone we feel like we know. A guy.
This week in his first show as Weekend Update co-anchor, SNL’s Colin Jost earned a few sideways glances from Internet commenters when he opened the segment by saying how honored he was to be there instead of diving right into the jokes. But Jimmy Fallon’s living proof that nice guys don’t always finish last, that a stiff upper lip isn’t the only way to work your way up to the top. Who knows? Maybe in another 20 years Jost will wind up with his own late-night slot. Earnestness is in.
And you know what that is? So great.