I have never thought of Greg Kinnear as particularly dishonest, but on a recent episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon he lied out of his ass. When speaking about his experience free diving amongst sharks off the coast of Cuba, he mentioned that every human has electricity inside of them that can potentially attract predators. Offhandedly, he also said, “Jimmy Fallon has electricity, and I think America knows that.” The crowd broke into applause.
Jimmy Fallon does not in fact have electricity. Watch any clip of him interviewing a celebrity on the Tonight Show and you’ll see that what he has is a somewhat keen ability to imitate charisma. This is done through a combination of laughing too hard at things that aren’t funny, pretending a banal anecdote is the most interesting thing he’s ever heard, and forcing his guests to play silly games with him. It is exhausting to watch.
When Fallon was hired as a late night host in 2009, it was amidst the notorious time slot battle between Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno. Fallon found comfort in being the ignored one, and spent the time turning Late Night with Jimmy Fallon into a bubbly variety show that New York Magazine called “a very modern antidote to free-form irony.”
You might remember that this era of Fallon’s career brought us such indelible classics like “6bee,” a Glee parody featuring the cast of Parks and Recreation that ended in Fallon singing Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” and the “History of Rap” sketches, in which Fallon and Justin Timberlake would perform a medley of rap hits. It’s funny because they’re white guys in suits, do you get it?
In that New York profile of Fallon, much is made of the fact that his strength actually lies in the fact that he was, at that point in time, allowing himself to have fun.
“If other late-night shows have come to feature a familiar crankiness — directed at politicians, our trashy culture, or rival talk-show hosts — Fallon, by contrast, now presides over a goofy, raucous, playful, innovative hour of shameless shenanigans,” Adam Sternbergh wrote.
Being cranky, tiresome as it may be, implies that one might have an opinion about something, a trait that has been a requirement for most late night hosts throughout history. Fallon, an innovator in the space, has never had an opinion on anything, and his show suffers because of it.
While the other late night hosts working right now have carved out some semblance of a personality — Kimmel is sardonic, Colbert is intellectual, Seth Meyers is kind of dorky, and James Corden can sing — Fallon is just happy to be there. Every story told to him by a guest is “awesome” or “amazing.” His method of interviewing is most comparable to a high schooler who hasn’t done any of the reading. If he had F. Scott Fitzgerald on the show, he might say something like, “Gatsby man, so that guy, he’s great, right?”
Taylor Lautner recently appeared on the show and told Fallon that his friends will occasionally call him and his fiancée (also named Taylor) “girl Tay, boy Tay.” Based on Fallon’s reaction, you would have thought he was seeing Richard Pryor at the Apollo. “Oh my god,” he said through a cackle and a clap, barely able to keep it together.
It’s hard for me to watch late night shows without thinking about David Letterman. Specifically, I think of when he interviewed Paris Hilton in 2007 after her brief stint in jail for violating her probation. Hilton is ostensibly there to talk about her latest fragrance, but Letterman keeps swerving back to her time in jail, despite Hilton’s obvious discomfort with the subject.
Fifteen years after the fact, it’s easy to watch this clip and think that Letterman crossed some kind of line. He was pressuring a young woman who had already been thoroughly publicly humiliated to talk about the one thing she didn’t want to talk about. While this would probably be frowned upon today, especially coming from a man, it’s important to note that, unfortunately, it’s really funny.
You would never see Fallon willingly make someone with any level of celebrity this uncomfortable for the sake of hitting a punchline. Moreover, you would never see him turn himself into the fool, as Letterman does at the end of the interview when he takes the cap off of Hilton’s new fragrance and begins chugging it. When Paris Hilton visited Fallon in January, she brought along photos from her wedding (“Wowzers,” he exclaimed, showing them to the audience) and introduced him to her Bored Ape NFT. “We’re part of the same community,” he responded, showing off his own.
To call what Fallon does “comedy” is rude to an art form that has already taken quite a beating in the last few years. Yes, he is there reading jokes, but try to recall the last time you heard him tell a particularly good one. Fallon’s actual skill, for people that find it in themselves to tune in, is to make celebrities seem fun and relatable. For his peers this is an annoying but mandatory part of the job; for him it’s where it stops. It’s a compelling approach, one that might make you think that Zoey Deutch knowing Yiddish is more interesting than it actually is. However, if you watch enough Fallon, it gets old fast. If every guest is the funniest, most interesting person alive, none of them are.
The viewing public seems to agree. At the end of the 2020-2021 season, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert became the most-watched late night show for the fifth season in a row, and for the first time ever, Jimmy Kimmel Live! earned more viewers than the Tonight Show, placing Fallon in third place in the 11:30 p.m. slot.
A few months before those ratings were released, however, Fallon’s contract was renewed for another five years at NBC, where he also produces That’s My Jam and Clash of the Cover Bands (on NBC Universal-owned E!). In the former, famous people try to remember song lyrics out of fear of getting sprayed with water, and in the latter, non-famous people cover famous songs and get judged by Meghan Trainor. What brilliant idea will he have next?
We are stuck with Fallon until at least 2026. There will be many more years of him going through the motions, playing games like “Egg Russian Roulette,” and fawning over actors whose movies he hasn’t seen. Beaming with the eager eyes of a golden retriever, he can’t believe his luck — all these humans are so incredible.