NEW YORK — Outside Studio 6B at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the once and future home of “The Tonight Show,” the smell of fresh paint and sawdust fills the air. Visitors to one of the last tapings of “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” are led up a back staircase, winding carefully past dusty drop cloths and dumpsters piled with construction waste.
It’s just a matter of days until the launch of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” and if NBC’s hivelike headquarters aren’t quite ready, Fallon most definitely is.
“Let’s do it! We’re all just ready to unleash,” he says in his office, a big-for-New York space decorated with dark wood and pressed tin ceilings. After nearly a year of anticipation and a long publicity blitz, the comedian is eager to get started on his new gig on Monday night. “Everyone here’s so pumped and excited.”
“Excited” is a word that comes up frequently in conversation with Fallon. At 39, Fallon, dressed in a plaid shirt and gray khakis, seems younger. He is enthusiastic bordering on hyperactive, bouncing from topic to topic and speaking in near-constant hyperbole.
One minute he’s showing off his stained-glass guitar (“the best guitar in the history of the world”), the next he’s scrolling through his phone to share pictures of his daughter, Winnie, welcomed in July by Fallon and his wife, film producer Nancy Juvonen (“the coolest thing in the whole wide world”).
This optimistic energy is sure to come in handy at “Tonight,” where he will become just the sixth host in the show’s 60-year history. Particularly after the Late Night War of 2010, all eyes will be on Fallon to see if his tenure is more successful. He remained neutral throughout the debacle that ended with Conan O’Brien’s departure from “Tonight” after just seven months.
“Jay’s been totally supportive,” says Fallon. “We’re friends, as much as we can be living on different coasts. He calls me every couple weeks, just to check in, like, ‘Hey, hanging in there, buddy?’ ”
When Leno signed off on Feb. 6, he was still the top-rated host in late-night television, a position he’d maintained steadily since the mid-’90s (except during his ill-fated move to 9 p.m. CT). And while “Tonight” remains the marquee brand, the competition for eyeballs is fiercer than ever: At last count there are at least 13 other cable, network and syndicated late-night talk shows on the air, including “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “The Colbert Report” and “Conan.”
Fallon left “Late Night” with a bang: His Feb. 7 swan song, in which he performed a rendition of the Band’s classic anthem “The Weight” with the Muppets, drew the highest ratings the show has seen since David Letterman signed off in 1993.
And the comedian is determined to maintain a healthy attitude in the face of inevitable scrutiny. “I’m sure the ratings will be big for the first week after the Olympics,” he says, “and then they’ll go down and people will say, ‘Fallon lost 40 percent of this viewers, this is terrible.’ I’m preparing myself for that roller coaster. Don’t believe the good stuff, and don’t believe the bad stuff.”
When Fallon made his “Late Night” debut, few could have predicted he’d ascend to the “Tonight” throne in just under five years. O’Brien, his predecessor, had just been promoted to 10:35 after 16 years and a five-year transition of power from Leno.
At the time, Fallon, a former breakout star on “Saturday Night Live,” was rebounding from a lackluster attempt at a film career. At first, it was far from obvious that Fallon was cut out for late-night TV. His premiere garnered mixed reviews, with his nervous monologue and uncertain interviewing skills drawing nearly unanimous criticism.
But over its freshman year, the show quietly blossomed, drawing on Fallon’s arsenal of impressions and musical abilities and capitalizing on its house band, the Roots, a Grammy-winning hip-hop ensemble from Philadelphia. In one early standout clip, Fallon, doing a spot-on Neil Young, teamed up with Bruce Springsteen for a heartfelt version of Willow Smith’s mindless hit “Whip My Hair.”
A turning point came when Fallon hosted the Emmys in 2010. His energetic turn — he opened the show with a rousing performance of “Born to Run” featuring Tina Fey, Jon Hamm and the cast of “Glee” — is the moment when viewers and critics alike realized that he might be pretty good at this hosting thing.
Since then, even for viewers who don’t stay up until 11:37 p.m., it has been difficult for anyone with an Internet connection to ignore that Fallon is up to something different. He is “slow-jammed the news” — a recurring bit where hot-button issues are soberly discussed to a sultry R&B beat — with President Barack Obama. He has presented the “Evolution of Mom Dancing” with Michelle Obama and “The History of Rap” in four parts with frequent collaborator Justin Timberlake.
“I love the fact that here you have a guy who’s going to be hosting ‘The Tonight Show’ who can almost claim Justin Timberlake and Bruce Springsteen as members of his rep company,” says David Bianculli, founder of the website TVWorthWatching.com and a professor of TV and film at New Jersey’s Rowan University. Bianculli likens Fallon to the first “Tonight” host, Steve Allen, who was similarly known for his musical gags.
One of Fallon’s strengths is his ability to get celebrities to let down their hair. He likes to engage his guests in games that encourage stars to go off script and infuse the show with a playful vibe.
“It’s improv without calling it that,” says Fallon. “What I love is seeing, is Scarlett Johansson competitive if you play Pictionary with her?”