Jimmy Fallon: The Billboard Cover Story
Little-known fact: Before he had his own NBC talk show or landed a gig with "Saturday Night Live," Jimmy Fallon appeared on a late-night program. The year was 1980-something. The show: "Letterman." Sitting in the audience, the perennially psyched Fallon says "the camera panned by me as I was in the crowd. And. I. Freaked. Out. I told everyone to watch." It was hard to miss him: "I was screaming and waving my hands." But just in case you did, he videotaped it and would replay it for anyone who'd watch-in slow motion, "a blur of a human, waving."
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To this day, giving his viewers the same manic thrill he experienced in the "Letterman" crowd is so important to the host. "I have to involve the audience," he says. "They have to be a part of it." This means not only interacting with his studio audience, but also making viewers at home on their couches feel as if they're in the moment with him.
Fallon possesses an unconditional, breathless love for music that began in his early adolescence. After growing up on a steady playlist of his parents' doo-wop records, he discovered at a young age how playing the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women" on vinyl could make his speaker's dust cap explode off, as the cone beneath vibrated powerfully. Each musical guest booking, the presence of his house band the Roots-world-renowned artists in their own right-and the pin-droppingly pristine acoustics of his new "Tonight Show" studio at 30 Rock in Manhattan all speak to his attempt to recapture that platelet-rattling, fist-in-the-sky feeling.
That dynamism has run through Fallon's stint at the "Late Night" franchise, from 2009 through Feb. 7, when the host, 39, officially was given the keys to "The Tonight Show," perhaps the most storied franchise in TV history. At "Late Night," he and his creative brain trust-bandleader Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and music booker Jonathan Cohen-have evolved performances from artists as diverse as Mariah Carey, Elvis Costello and Chvrches into bona-fide events.
With the Winter Olympics as his splashy lead-in, Fallon now faces the herculean task of both hanging on to his fans (which averaged 1.8 million last year, according to Nielsen) and translating that energy to Jay Leno's more mature audience (3.7 million) when he takes over "The Tonight Show" on Feb. 17. Fallon built his audience doing things his own way-which has meant taking risks on oddball skits that go viral, and emphasizing a range of music that runs from icons like Bruce Springsteen to fledging acts like U.K. dance sensation Disclosure. With U2 booked as his first "Tonight Show" musical guest, one question is, Can he keep the informal, independent ethos that has given him so much credibility as he moves to a bigger platform?
Most of the challenge comes from the fact that the two shows are simply wired differently. Where Leno's "Tonight Show" takes place in Los Angeles, Fallon's will be shot in New York. (His first episode will mine "how much we love the city," he says, recalling that "when [NBC] told me I got the job, I asked, 'Can we do it from New York?' There was just silence on the phone.") Leno's program moves at a sauntering pace, while there is a youthful hustle to Fallon's show. And as "Late Night" has become a compelling argument for the mystic power of social media, "The Tonight Show" continues to willfully operate on lo-fi, ad-driven revenue (albeit lucrative, with $125 million in 2013).