UPDATE: As predicted, Justin Timberlake will be joining his comedic BFF Jimmy Fallon for the inaugural week The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. We already knew U2 would be the musical guest for opening night (with Will Smith in the interview chair) but the full first week line has now been revealed, capping of with JT on Friday. 2/21
2/17: Guest Will Smith and musical guest U2
2/18: Guests Jerry Seinfeld, Kristen Wiig and musical guest Lady Gaga
2/19: Guest Bradley Cooper and musical guest Tim McGraw
2/20: Guests First Lady Michelle Obama, Will Ferrell and musical guest Arcade Fire
2/21: Guest Justin Timberlake
Oh. And Michelle Obama–she gets props, too.
Is Jimmy Fallon x Justin Timberlake’s Star Turn on SNL a Blueprint For The Tonight Show?
This past weekend Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake created a 2-year ratings high for Saturday Night Live when they took over the gold standard of sketch comedy shows as host and musical guest, respectively, earning a 3.9 rating among the coveted 18-49 demographic. This was not just a much-needed boost for the SNL franchise– which has taken a bit of a hit lately, enduring self-flagellation and negative press over the racial politics of its newest castmembers–it is also fairly major TV news. That’s because, while it appeared on the surface to be a bit of a victory lap for SNL alum Fallon–his 2nd time hosting since he left the show in 2004 to helm his own late night venture–the appearance could also be read as a first glimpse of a winning formula for The Tonight Show, which Fallon is scheduled to take over on February 17th (as he recently let the world know via twitter).
First off, the ratings themselves have generated some buzz with the press and the public–and doubtless good feelings among the powers that be at NBC–for the new incarnation of The Tonight Show. Those are both important indicators already, for whatever star or strategy NBC decides on behind the scenes will be ratified or veto’d by ratings. You may recall the plight of one Conan O’Brien, the last funnyman who attempted to ease longtime host Jay Leno out from behind the famous Tonight Show desk. O’Brien’s stint on the show lasted a mere 5 months when he failed to reproduce Leno’s ratings in the 11pm slot. But the star turn on SNL doesn’t just raise hopes that Fallon can make it rain, it seems to lay out pretty clearly how he can make it rain. In a word: music.
There’s no doubt that the ratings bump was not just the powerful 1-2 combination of Fallon and Timberlake but their bromantic, musico-comedic onscreen chemistry as well. With Fallon hitting his best BeeGees falsetto and Timberlake matching him not for note in a redux of his now-iconic “Homelessville” sketch, you could be forgiven for wondering at times which was comedian and which was crooner–in fact, on the last SNL with similar ratings, Timberlake was hosting, not crooning (back in 2011, with Lady Gaga as musical guest). That particular blur of is-it-music-or-is-it-comedy has been an integral part of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon‘s success–both with Timberlake, specifically (on the History of Hip-Hop series for instance) and in general. Likewise, it’s already been pointed out that The Roots‘ presence as house band on LNWJF has provided Fallon with cool points, relevance and street cred that is the envy of his late night peers. This is indispensable because in a sense it removes some of the pressure to be hip and funny every damn second from Jimmy’s shoulders, freeing him to concentrate on being extremely likable instead–a role in which he exceeds. If that seems like a backhanded complement, it’s not. It might, in fact, be the factor that lets him succeed where O’Brien and others have failed (Full disclosure: since Questlove is both the founder of this website and bandleader for The Roots, Fallon is in a roundabout but very real sense my boss’ boss’ boss.)
To get specific, where Conan (and Jimmy Kimmel--who will be Fallon’s main competitor for ratings come February) succeeded in capturing younger viewers with smarter, snarkier, more ironic and more absurd humor than Leno ever aspired to, they lost in overall ratings because the snark did not always play with the whole Tonight Show audience, particularly in middle america. The cool points provided by Fallon’s musicality seem to suggest he could do an end-run around this dilemma, though, always staying hip enough for the 18-year old without ever being so snide or obnoxious as to lose the 49-year old. Consider the difference between Kanye West‘s live performance of “Bound 2” with The Roots on LNWJF, for instance, with the much harsher Kanye spoof on Kimmel–and the twitter beef and tense dialogue that resulted. For an even more illuminating comparison, contrast Fallon & The Roots jamming with Miley Cyrus on classroom instruments with Kimmel’s semi-trolling video hoax of a girl setting herself on fire while twerking, to fully understand the two diametrically opposed comedic takes on a single cultural moment.
The ratings success of the Fallon formula on SNL, taken together with the fact that he will be the first host since Johnny Carson to be billed with the magical phrase “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” (as opposed to plain old ‘with’) suggest that he may also be the first host in decades to remake The Tonight Show in his own image, replacing the now-stale format of host-and-bandleader-banter that Carson established with something totally fresh.
Fallon, of course shared his own take on the situation Saturday Night:
“I hosted Late Night for five years, and now The Tonight Show…and then five years after that, I’ll host the Nightly News. And then five years after that the Today show. Then five years after that I’m the new Carson Daly. So this is awesome.”
But don’t listen to what he says. Listen to the way he warbles like Barry Gibb on “Staying Alive”: