It’s easy to complain about things on the internet. Too easy! So here’s a spot where we talk about stuff we like.
Earlier this month, NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” quietly celebrated its third anniversary. And amid the noise and clamor of the Late Night Wars, it has also quietly become the best, most creative and most fun offering in late night.
Like his predecessor Conan O’Brien, Fallon got off to a famously rocky start — note to hosts: Robert DeNiro does not make a good first-night guest — but the show quickly righted itself and found its own groove. It hasn’t so much reinvented the talk show format as it has refined it and brought the fun back to it.
Credit Fallon, the former “SNL” star best known for not being able to stay in character during sketches, who brings a youthful energy and his boundless enthusiasm to his job. At 37, he’s a full 11 years younger than O’Brien (48), and several decades younger than both Jay Leno (61) and David Letterman (64). His approach is much different than his contemporaries: His dialogue is short and snappy, favoring stoner jokes and material geared toward the Facebook set, touching on but not delving too far into politics. His quickie monologue — usually seven or eight jokes — sets up time for reoccurring bits and audience participation segments, some of which (“Obama Facial Expressions,” the ’80s VHS dating spoofs) are as inspired as they are offbeat. (The “Obama” gags usually spiral into some trivial dissertation on late ’80s or early ’90s teen-centric television shows.) And the occasional “Let Us Play With Your Look” sketches — where Fallon and a guest play creepy wig-wearing makeover artists, and Fallon sings “let us play with your look!” in an increasingly high pitch until he passes out — is truly bizarre.
He also has a knack for making bits that go viral, whether its his spot-on readings of hip songs in the guise of Neil Young or his “History of Rap” segments with Justin Timberlake. He also regularly uses Twitter for his “Late Night Hashtags” segments, where he creates a topic and gets users to send in their best material. It’s interactive without being gimmicky or pandering.
Fallon still struggles with his celebrity interviews. If he’s not talking about “SNL” with a guest he has a hard time finding common ground with them, and he’s too genial to ever be probing. He’ll never be Letterman, who can cut down a guest with a few choice words and an icy glare, because that’s not in his DNA. He’s eager to please, and he’ll sooner make himself the fool than put a guest in a situation where they’re uncomfortable.
He’s better when playing games with guests, where he gets them to reveal themselves in different ways. Some show themselves to be overly competitive and poor sports when playing something as innocuous as Total Iceholes, a version of cornhole using beanbags shaped like fish, while others prove themselves to be carefree and self-effacing when squaring off with Fallon in beer pong. Fallon, who seemingly doesn’t have a cynical bone in his body, is genuinely excited when playing with his guests, and his joy sells the bits. The games never feel forced — remember when Leno used to have his guests race around some sort of track for some reason? — and they fit his personality and style.
But music is where the show really excels. With the Roots as the house band, music is never far from the focus, and the show books top notch and cutting edge artists ranging from Bruce Springsteen — who was the subject of a full week of musical performances the week before “Wrecking Ball” was released — to Odd Future (who infamously made their network television debut on the show). The show has become the hottest showcase on TV for indie rock acts, and performers from R. Kelly to Rufus Wainwright have turned in show-stopping performances on the Fallon stage.
I was never much of a fan of Fallon when he was on “SNL,” and I wasn’t excited about him taking over “Late Night.” But I quickly warmed to his style, and I can’t imagine the current late night landscape without him. In the format, he’s the only late night host whose material feels vital, and he’s made “Late Night” the coolest show on the dial.