Jimmy Fallon just finished the biggest week of his career as the new host of The Tonight Show and it went exceedingly well, save for one glaring problem. But more on that later. Now it's on to week two.
This is now the time where you'll hear many "experts" pontificate how we will see the "real" ratings numbers come out this week and next and thus, give us a good sense of what kind of ratings Fallon and this incarnation of The Tonight Show will draw. They will also point out how Fallon and his first week helming The Tonight Show had inflated ratings because the Olympics drove an abnormally large size audience into Fallon's first week of shows. They'd be right about the latter, but not the former.
I believe the abnormally large-sized Olympics' audience had to hang on until midnight to see Fallon. Not the usual 11:35 pm time slot. So, I'm assuming part of that abnormal group did the normal thing people do late at night, fall asleep before Fallon's show started. My argument is that when Fallon goes to 11:35 this week, the drop off will be of decent size but not as much as most are predicting.
But the real mistake those pontificators made is in their belief that these next two weeks will give us a good sense of how Fallon's Tonight Show will perform over the long haul. Not true. It's going to come in mid-April and mid-July and mid-September. That's when we will all have other things to do and when life can get in the way of normal viewing patterns and things we once thought important. That's when Fallon's ability to draw an audience will be truly tested. It's those times when there isn't really much going on and he has to bang out a Tonight Show night after night that will really test Fallon's ability to keep the show interesting, social-media worthy and worthy of a distracted, fractured audience's time.
Look, there is much to be happy about if you are Fallon and his Tonight Show staff. The shows went well, were fun, guests were great and the skits mostly paid off. Audiences tuned in and sampled. In a Huffington Post piece I wrote recently, "The Day Jay Leno Scared The Hell Out Of Me," I stated that Fallon was the right guy with the right skill set and he will do well.
In fact, in chatting with a number of friends and people I know who work on Fallon's Tonight Show, it's been, for the most part, business as usual. Sure, they moved across the hall to a new stage, but they are doing the same show. Same bits. Same musical numbers. Same sensibility. The only difference has been the scrutiny of the network suits. A few more notes here and there. But all in all, Fallon's doing nearly the exact same show he did that got him The Tonight Show gig in the first place. Sure, it will evolve and morph, but it won't change a whole lot in the next year or two.
In fact, Fallon's closer to what Johnny Carson did when Carson hosted The Tonight Show than Jay Leno ever was. That's a good thing. However, there is one area where Fallon is woefully inadequate when compared to Carson (or even David Letterman). It's actually tough to watch. Painful sometimes. It's Fallon's inability to interview guests. Even Friday night with his friend Justin Timberlake you could tell he didn't know where to go next and went back to what he had already said to Timberlake over and over again. How great it was to have Justin on the show, how he took time out of his busy schedule and how great Justin is as a talent.
It was equally as tough to watch when Fallon asked U2's Bono to give a speech to his coffee mug. Even cringe worthy. Carson was a master, even early on, of letting the guests shine, throwing out little nuggets, sitting back and letting them do their thing. He was the pilot in whom you had complete confidence.
Fallon's like the kid who just landed in the pilot's seat of a 747 and comes on the intercom to tell you how he can't believe he's piloting this amazing plane. Unless I'm drinkin', I'm getting the hell off the plane. But that's just when he interviews his guests, something that is MUCH harder than it looks. There is an art to it. Trust me. Over the years I've interviewed most of the people Fallon has on his show. I know where Fallon can go with these guests to make it a memorable interview. His talent that I don't have is the ability to put these guests in often excellent skits which, in turn, cut down on couch-interview time. And that's a good thing.
There is a saying in sports that goes like this; "Act like you've been here before. Act like you belong." I believe as soon Fallon does just that, his interviews will get better and he will have full grasp of all the controls it takes to pilot the jumbo jet that is The Tonight Show. One week in and Fallon piloted the jet through a nice take-off. Where he flies The Tonight Show from here should be interesting. I'll be watching, a tasty bloody-mary at the ready.