It’s dangerous for a people to declare one man their enemy. It’s unwise for a state to scapegoat one man for its problems.
Nevertheless, I think California should make an exception and declare war on Jimmy Fallon.
Yes, I know. The comedian who is taking over The Tonight Show next week is cute and cuddly. Yes, his musical chops and comic timing make him a consummate entertainer. And yes, his Barry Gibb impression is irresistible.
None of this, however, absolves him of the great crime he has committed against our state: relocating The Tonight Show from Burbank to New York City.
Media stories about the move have missed the point. The Tonight Show’s departure is a blow not merely because it cost 200 people their jobs, or because of what it symbolizes for Hollywood promotion, or because of the expected decline in tourists visiting the section of Burbank where the show was taped.
Fallon’s theft of The Tonight Show robs California of its biggest stage for statewide communication, a rare place where a Californian (Leno) could ask questions of presidents, governors, mayors, and moguls—and all Californians could hear the answers.
We’re missing the depth of this loss because The Tonight Show was first and foremost a forum for movie stars and other entertainers, and because it was a national entity with a national audience. But California is so big, with so many different media markets, that there are few other shows or venues that reach all of us.
Tonight did, and not just because it was based in Burbank for the past 40 years. Johnny Carson, who moved filming from New York to L.A., made the state and its people a character on the show. His successor, Jay Leno, may not have been as funny as Carson (who is?), but he was a bigger part of California life.
This was personal—Leno and his wife are reliable supporters of local charities—but also part of the show. Presidents and other national politicians, on their frequent California fundraising trips, routinely ignored local journalists and rarely held town halls with citizens. But they sat down with Leno, who was often the only Californian who got to question these powerful visitors in a public forum.
He consistently put California newsmakers on the air, and got them to say things that were picked up by other media. Leno’s regular bit, “Jaywalking,” in which he asked people on our streets basic questions about government, was a devastating critique of the state of civics education in California. It also raised the question, still unanswered, of why we trust these citizens to provide final verdicts, via ballot measures, on so many complicated questions.
No one made more news on the show than Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who announced his entrance into California politics in Leno’s studio. Schwarzenegger, about whom I wrote a book, was friends with Leno and was comfortable promoting movies on his show, but he also chose The Tonight Show because it was the best way he had to reach all of California at once. While in office, he would return often to talk about politics, and was often more candid on Leno—where he first disclosed that he wouldn’t oppose same-sex marriage—than with reporters.
Now Fallon, that likable enemy of the state, has taken our stage away from us. The move to New York makes sense—for him. Fallon has Brooklyn roots and was raised in New York State. And his years in Los Angeles, in the middle of the previous decade, were not happy ones. He made two movies that didn’t do well, and “I was probably drinking more than I should have been drinking,” he told Vanity Fair.
What can we do? We could boycott all things New York, but I would miss bagels and New York Times wedding announcements. Some will suggest using tax credits to lure the show back, but we already have too much corporate welfare in this state. Bottom line: If any Californian has blackmailable information on Fallon, now is the time to use it.
Better yet, Californians can get busy on a replacement. Neither Conan O’Brien’s nor Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night shows has big-enough audiences to replace the impact of Leno. Which creates an opportunity for some enterprising and entertaining Californian to come up with a show—or new kind of venue—that can serve as a space for Californians. We’ve lost Tonight. Let’s get started on tomorrow.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square.