TIME Television

The Tonight Show’s Upworthy New Host

Jimmy Fallon gets ready to slow jam the laughs

When Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and the NBC executive suite mud-wrestled over hosting duties at The Tonight Show in 2009 and 2010, only Jimmy Fallon came out clean. He buckled down, he had only nice things to say, and he did his job. As in his Late Night opening credits, which had him eagerly hoofing it through city streets to his studio, he kept his focus and ran, ran, ran. He ran too fast for any of the dirt to stick to him.

Four years later, Fallon, 39, is taking over Tonight from Leno seemingly the same way O’Brien did: the younger host of Late Night supplants the old guy who’s still leading in the ratings. Except that it really may be different this time. Certainly everyone is making nice (for now).

But if the transition goes smoothly, it won’t be so much because of how Fallon is replacing Leno but because of how, as the 12:35 a.m. host, he replaced O’Brien. When O’Brien took the big job, he never really shook his Late Night outsider’s sensibility–surrealism, Masturbating Bear and all. Essentially, he made Tonight into an alternative to itself. It was creative and invigorating, but TV–or at least NBC–wasn’t ready for it.

Even as the host of Late Night, Fallon was more in sync with the upbeat, celebratory Tonight Show sensibility than O’Brien ever was. (He’s also different from Leno, whom you’d never see busting moves with Justin Timberlake.) He’s an enthusiast, able to communicate without phoniness his bouncing-on-his-heels excitement over pop culture (including everything from rap to Downton Abbey). It’s an attitude that fits with the longtime mission of Tonight–which, after all, still exists largely to help celebrities sell stuff. But it’s also a way of updating it for this cultural moment, when media fragmentation and the Internet have enabled people to drill down and get really, really into their specific enthusiasms. Jimmy Fallon is America’s Fan in Chief.

Above all, he’s a fan of music, which distinguished his Late Night from the moment he chose the Roots, an already legendary hip-hop/soul/rap group, as his house band. A gifted singer and mimic, he became Neil Young, Eddie Vedder and David Bowie; most recently, he was Bruce Springsteen with Bruce Springsteen, delivering a blistering send-up of Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal to the tune of “Born to Run.” (“Sprung from cages on Highway 9/ We got three lanes closed/ So Jersey, get your ass in line.”)

That parody was one of Fallon’s most newsworthy bits but also one of his least characteristic ones, because his Late Night was bigger on sweetness than on satire. His signature topical bit was Slow Jam the News, with guests like Brian Williams, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama reading headlines over a sexy funk groove; the joke isn’t the substance of the news but the style. When half the world was mocking “Call Me Maybe,” Fallon invited Carly Rae Jepsen to sing a straight-up version, with the Roots accompanying on classroom instruments. Fallon would rather make fun with people than make fun of people.

That may mean he is a safer choice for Tonight, but it’s also a radical departure from recent late-show history. The late-night recipe has been three parts vinegar ever since David Letterman transformed the genre more than 30 years ago. On ABC, Jimmy Kimmel pranks his own audience with YouTube hoaxes. Even Leno, the middle-of-the-road antithesis of Letterman, made a signature bit out of getting dumb answers to current-events questions from people on the street.

The comedy of crankiness and critique can be hilarious, smart, even passionate (see Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert). But it leaves a market opening for positivity. Fallon–who has made social media more central to his show than anyone but maybe Kimmel–has shown on TV what Facebook taught the online world: the power of the Like. Just as viral-media sites like Upworthy have hit it big by creating enthusiastic content that people of a wide range of ages and tastes feel O.K. sharing on their News Feeds, Fallon makes inclusionary comedy for millennials and their moms.

Does that mean he’ll pull in ratings like Leno’s? Almost certainly not over the long haul, because the mass late-night audience began rolling up the big tent long ago. Leno got lower ratings than Johnny Carson, O’Brien got lower ratings than Leno, and Leno, when he returned, got lower ratings than Leno 1.0. But if Fallon’s infectious eagerness can go viral with a wide enough range of viewers, late night’s freshly elevated sprinter could just make this a marathon.

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