Jimmy Fallon Reflects on How Life Has Changed a Year Into Pandemic: 'I Bonded with My Daughters'

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Michael Lewis

Jimmy Fallon is reflecting on how life has evolved for his family — and The Tonight Show — one year into the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I wish we wrote all this stuff down. Because it's like, I remember it, but it was so crazy, you almost forget what life was like," Fallon, 46, tells PEOPLE. "It was crazy how much went down. There was no food in the stores. All we could buy was frozen shrimp. The police would come knock on your door if you had an extra car in the driveway, thinking you were having a party. People freaking out about toilet paper. Drive-by birthday parties. That was all happening, you know, while we're trying to figure out what's going on with the kids with Zoom school and can you even see your parents? And on top of that, we have a show to put on. That phase was bizarre."

Fallon decided to meet the moment that was March 2020, when COVID-19 was formally declared a worldwide pandemic by the World Health Organization, and many states, including his home state of N.Y., issued stay at home orders, effectively shutting down business and most studio production, by moving the Tonight Show into production at his family home. His wife, Nancy Juvonen, served as his producer, shooting footage on cell phones. His daughters, Winnie and Franny, drew signs for the show and often sat in on bits. And though it was a far cry from the slick production the show was used to, viewers loved it even more.

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"Months later we've been getting letters and emails from people, saying, 'Thank you so much for being there' and 'You have no idea, that was our family thing,'" he says. "To know we were an escape for people is pretty cool."

Jimmy Fallon with wife Nancy Juvonen Jimmy Fallon with wife Nancy Juvonen

Behind the scenes, it wasn't so easy.

"It was like taking a course in communications or filmmaking," he says now, reflecting on the peculiar period in the show's history. "I remember doing a show where the Roots were performing in their backyards, and I'm shooting with a cell phone on a tripod that's going to fall over, and then it started raining. And then it's taking forever to transmit the footage because everybody in the house is using the internet and it's slow. It was definitely challenging. Definitely scary. But we did so much this past year. We probably don't even realize how much we all did."

The Tonight Show returned to a full-on production at NBC's iconic 30 Rock studio in July, with daily COVID tests and an almost empty building — ("It was just me, Hoda Kotb and Savannah Guthrie over at the Today show, and robot cameras," he says) — but this Friday, Fallon hopes to recapture the homespun charm of the quarantine-era shows with a special episode honoring the one-year anniversary.

"We actually built out the inside of an Airstream and put it in my backyard just in case we ever had to go back and do the show from home again, and then we never used it," says Fallon, who will put his wife and daughters to work again for the "Thank You Notes" and "Ask the Fallons" segments. And, as they did last year during the height of the lockdown, the show is teaming up with a sponsor, State Farm, to donate $100,000 to Feeding America. "We're going to give back and it's going to be a good all around feel," he says.

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And recreating the special on-camera moments he shared with his daughters brings back memories of what Fallon calls the silver lining of the pandemic. "I really bonded with my daughters during that time because I was never normally home that long," he says. "Usually I'm at work, so I got to really wake up and go to bed with them every single night for months. I think there was a real bond there that we'll never forget."

Of course, things still aren't completely back to normal.

With schools across the country still largely disrupted in many places, the Fallons have opted for pod learning for Winnie and Franny, in lieu of remote school. "Last spring, when they were on Zoom school, you can see they get distracted. You look away and a couple of minutes later they're playing with dolls," Fallon says.

Gerardo Mora/Getty Images Jimmy Fallon and Nancy Juvonen with their daughters

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So when the new school year rolled around, "My wife started a school," he says. "We said, 'Let's just have a pod school with our neighbors and friends,' so we got teachers and a principal and a teacher's assistant and a curriculum from the school district, so yeah, it's legit," says Fallon, adding that they outfitted the school with old lockers from a high school and materials from eBay. "My wife went all out. We were so lucky to be able to pull it off."

Their kids also have yet to see their grandparents since the start of the pandemic. "My dad has some underlying conditions, it's tough. And so yeah, no, my kids haven't really spent time with their grandparents all year," Fallon says, adding that his father recently received his first vaccine dosage and they're looking forward to reuniting soon. "They're really looking forward to that. It's gotta be emotional, man."