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First Impressions: NBC's "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" Debut
March 3, 2009  | By David Bianculli
JIMMY-justin.jpgYou can't judge a new talk show by opening night. It takes weeks, months (and years, if you get them), to work out kinks, throw out what doesn't work and rind a comfortable style and rhythm. But the very first impressions of Monday's premiere of NBC's Late Night with Jimmy Fallonhad plenty of early indicators.

Here's what was a hit, and a miss, from opening night, and what areas need expanding, or need work...



The cold open with Conan O'Brien, shown still packing his things for the transition, was a shrewd and funny beginning. Nice start.

Another nice start: the opening credits, showing Fallon as a blur against New York streets and locations, with a solid theme and nice, solid type on the title sequence. So far, so very good. And even the solid blue curtain from which Fallon emerged to deliver his opening monologue was a nice retro touch.


The "Slow Jam News" bit with the Roots, which ended the monologue, was clever too -- the only scripted comedy bit in the inaugural hour that worked well.

Justin Timberlake's appearance was entertaining, partly because it's rare to see a talk show guest much more at ease than the host. That was the case here, even with their shared history and mutual enjoyment -- but Justin's impressions of John Mayer and others entertained Fallon so heartily, it was hard not to go with that flow.

(When Timberlake showed a clip of his new MTV reality show, though, it played like a spoof, but wasn't supposed to be.)

And when Van Morrison closed out the hour performing, that would count as a hit in my demographic, but quite possibly more of a miss to Fallon's target crowd. Which leads us to...



The monologue. Fallon was good reading punch lines on "Weekend Update," so he'll probably grow into this. His delivery was tentative, but that's expected, and fully excusable, at this point in the game. But the level of the jokes themselves has to rise. Quickly.

The audience. They were so stoked to be there on opening night, they bordered on hecklers.

Pretaped skits. The "Blonde Mothers" profile, the Robert De Niro "Space Train" spoof -- both were unfunny and unnecessary.


"Lick It for Ten": This game-show spoof routine brought up three audience members to lick things -- like a lawn mower -- for $10. Instant slow-motion replays only elongated the agony.

If this is conceived as a recurring bit, I beg the producers to reconsider.

"Lick It For Ten"? I'd pay not to see any more of this, so here's my offer: "Scrap It for Twenty."


The interviews. Fallon should watch and study his De Niro interview carefully, to observe how little time he actually gave de Niro to talk and respond.


Instead, Fallon took time to do his own De Niro imitation (I know, it was so De Niro could return fire and imitate Fallon, but that didn't work, either), and told De Niro a story about going to a basketball game with Jack Nicholson. At the end, De Niro said that he didn't hear a question. Precisely.

I like Jimmy Fallon, and I think he may grow into this just fine. But at the desk, interviewing people, what he has to understand very quickly is that making his guests look better is what will make him, and his show, shine rather than stumble.

Celebrities are interviewed, and asked questions incessantly, from the moment they become famous, so it's a common trap for them to presume that being on the other end of the Q&A is just as easy. It isn't. One of the things that must be mastered, to do it well, is to be interested in the guest's answers, and to actually listen.

When De Niro was talking about his TriBeCa Film Festival, Fallon could be seen mentally shifting ahead to the next bit of business. The talk in a good talk show involves being present for the conversation, and for being genuine rather than ironic.

These skills will take time to develop, but time, for now, is on Fallon's side. And tonight at 12:37 a.m. ET, when Tina Fey shows up, he has a terrific chance to make a measurable, very early course correction.


1 Comment


Greg Kibitz said:

You gotta admit that Fallon has some real guts to try and interview DeNiro as his first Guest. But guts and wisdom are often at odds and he might as well have started with Joaquin Phoenix. DeNiro is not really the most talkative guy and doesn't do many talk shows for that reason and so he needs a very seasoned interviewer like the other 3 to draw him out and make him look good. He's also a very method actor, so throwing him in some silly skit is kinda dumb becasue he will just look bad (which can be good but this time it was not). But last night's Fallon was much better.

Comment posted on March 4, 2009 2:17 PM
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