Jimmy Fallon needs to shave his chest.
It’s 11 a.m. on a Thursday, and The Tonight Show host is getting ready to make himself look like a 15-year-old girl by way of a shaved torso and a tube top. It’s all in the service of an SNL-style sketch with this evening’s musical guest, the pop singer Ariana Grande.
In the sketch, which Fallon will tape around 3 p.m. and which will air sometime in the show’s second block, he plays a snotty, nasal-voiced teenager hosting a Wayne’s World-esque show from her parents’ basement, talking to Grande (who, it should be said, looks legitimately and a little uncomfortably like a 15-year-old-girl) about the absurdities of Instagram, pop music and parents. On its surface, the show-within-a-show looks tailor-made to play up the strengths of the guest. The sketch hinges on a brief sing-off, in which Fallon’s teenage alter-ego challenges — and is handily beaten by — Grande’s. It’s a rare candid, un-auto-tuned moment for the singer, one that makes her look both humble and supremely talented.
But really, the sketch is built for Fallon. Somewhere around the halfway mark, he begins to lose character, and has every intention of dragging Grande with him. When Grande’s character confesses to a girl-crush on Richard Dreyfuss, that’s it. They’re both cracking up — not, presumably, at the joke, which is only half-funny, but at the preposterousness of the situation. Look at them: two of the most famous people in the world right now, sitting on a soundstage couch in pigtails and sequins, drinking green smoothies and making fun of themselves, their core audiences and the whole elaborate star system of which they’re not just a part, but on top.
If you’re Jimmy Fallon, what’s not to laugh about?
Growing up in Brooklyn under the shadows of 30 Rock and the Manhattan skyline, all Jimmy Fallon wanted was to be on Saturday Night Live. He’d stay up at night as a teenager, drinking a beer benevolently left out by his parents and snacking on a bowl of chips, laughing by himself in the semi-darkness, planning his future. “I preferred to watch it by myself,” he says, “because I really wanted to focus. I didn’t want anyone talking over it or saying, ‘I dunno, that’s not so funny.’ I just didn’t want to hear anyone else’s opinion.”
He idolized that first couple of casts: Belushi, Gilda Radner and Chevy Chase, Mike Myers, Dana Carvey and Phil Hartman. He used to do Chase-like pratfalls down his stairs onto a pile of paper plates. “And then I’d stand up and go, ‘Live, From New York, it’s Saturday Night!’”
Eventually, Fallon would get to yell that line for real, over and over again for the better part of a decade. That’s probably how you know him, actually, as a member of the early 2000s SNL cast — that boyish guy cracking up behind Will Ferrell or Tina Fey, visibly having the time of his life.
By that measure of success — achieving his “ultimate, ultimate, ultimate goal” — Fallon has more than exceeded even his own expectations. He’s blown past all markers, really. That dream came true 15 years ago. All the rest? The movies, Late Night, The Tonight Show? That’s just icing on the cake.
“I never thought about hosting The Tonight Show or replacing Johnny Carson,” he says. “I never thought there would be a replacement for Johnny Carson. I thought he just came with the television set.”
The truth is, Fallon isn’t just another SNL alumnus. He’s SNL’s golden boy, handpicked by Lorne Michaels (whom he still speaks to every day) as heir to The Tonight Show legacy, King of the biggest throne in all of late night, if not all of television.
Think that’s an overstatement? Consider the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary special, which aired earlier this year. For a fanboy like Fallon, this was heaven — a reassembling of all the SNL greats for a One Night Only comedy extravaganza. Studio 8H was filled to the brim with some of New York’s best talent and biggest names, including guest hosts like Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, musical guests like Paul McCartney and Paul Simon, and former SNL cast members like Chris Rock, Jane Curtin, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Bill Murray, Norm Macdonald, Adam Sandler and Eddie Murphy, just for starters.
And Fallon? He wasn’t just there. He opened the whole damn show — lights come up, it’s just him with a top hat and cane until he’s interrupted by his pal Justin Timberlake, launching into a rap history of SNL’s greatest hits (which was itself a reimagined version of their wildly popular Tonight Show bit, “A History of Rap”).
Then, just like he’d practiced at the foot of the stairs as a kid, and like he’d done so many times on so many weekends in his 20s, he yelled into the camera: “Live, from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” And boy, he could barely keep it together.
Cracking up has become Jimmy Fallon’s signature. His comedy calling card. His biggest skill as a talk show host is getting the people sitting next to him to crack up along with him — to shake their guard and have a little fun. Maybe not as much fun as he’s having, but still. Hugh Jackman seems to honestly enjoy wearing a mullet wig for a game of Musical Beers. Kevin Spacey seems to really be having a blast playing Wheel of Impressions. Jennifer Garner doesn’t seem to mind at all that her turn at Rock, Paper, Scissors, Pie ends with a face-full of whipped cream.
And then, of course, there’s Lip Sync Battle, the Fallon staple that’s so popular it’s spawned its own show, co-produced by Fallon, The Office’s John Krasinski and British comedian Stephen Merchant, and hosted by LL Cool J — a bona fide fucking phenomenon in and of itself because who doesn’t like watching famous people lose themselves and act like real people, even just for the length of a truncated pop song?
And unlike Jimmy Kimmel’s “Celebrities read mean tweets about themselves” or David Letterman’s, well, anything, Fallon’s games aren’t mean-spirited, snarky or even remotely tongue-in-cheek. They’re just about having good, clean fun. Because really, that’s all he’s ever done. That’s all he knows how to do.
“Colbert told me something that Conan told Colbert that Carson told Conan,” he says. “And that is, with this job, you’ll use everything you know. Everything you’ve ever learned, everything you’ve ever done, you’ll do numerous times on this show. If you’ve ever fake-tap-danced, if you’ve ever done a celebrity impression, anything you’ve picked up in your whole life you’ll use. And it’s true.”
His audience can’t get enough. Take that clip he was filming with Ariana Grande. It went up — as all clips from Fallon’s Tonight Show do — on YouTube the day after airing, in this case a Friday morning. By the time Fallon was back on TV Monday night, it had been viewed more than five-and-a-half million times.
And that’s nothing. A clip of him and Taylor Swift dancing in sports jerseys has been watched almost seven million times. A clip of his interview with Nicole Kidman — the one where she admits to having a crush on him decades ago, and in which he completely loses it (not that we blame him) — was viewed more than 29 million times. And a clip of Daniel Radcliffe rapping the entirety of Breakalicious’s “Alphabet Aerobics” is up at 38 million views and counting.
America might not be watching all at once, as it did Carson, but it is watching. Don’t let the Neilson ratings fool you: Fallon isn’t just winning the battle of his time slot (The Tonight Show regularly gets about four million viewers), he’s winning the battle of television in general. Seen live, his show chugs along at a steady — if not plodding — pace, with only brief moments of actual excitement. But it’s made for the Internet. The Tonight Show is less a talk show and more a series of carefully crafted pieces of shareable content. It is built to go viral. And as such, it has become essential viewing — whenever you have a moment to view it.
None of that is surprising. Fallon is genuinely affable. He has an infectious smile. He’s charming and boyish, keen to like and be liked in return.
What is surprising is that, in real life, Fallon rarely, if ever, cracks up. He is perfectly composed, professional, the picture of a grown-up. He is more than up to the task of running a nightly comedy program — the schedule for which is undeniably grueling, especially when, as in Fallon’s case, the show occasionally goes live from the road (a recent trip started in Los Angeles and then did a week in Arizona for the Super Bowl). He has his hands in everything, from booking guests to filling spots for guests who back out, writing monologue jokes to filming pre-taped sketches to picking out his impeccably tailored suits. And through it all, he keeps his trademark grin — or at least, he tries to.
“In a weird way, I look forward to problems,” he says. “Because it becomes a thing to solve and then you go, ‘that was fun!’ There are times I’m not smiling but it’s not because I’m mad, it’s just that I’m trying to figure everything out.”
One of the things he’s been figuring out lately is fatherhood. Jimmy Fallon loves his kids. Everyone loves their kids, but Jimmy Fallon really, really loves his. He and his wife, the film producer Nancy Juvonen, have two young daughters, and Fallon has been unusually candid about their struggles with infertility and their eventual use of a surrogate. “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us,” he says. You have to think he means it.
And even though he works long hours, toiling away in the television factory at his (or someone’s) dream job, he’s determined to be the best father he can be. In fact, he’s enshrined that determination in a kids’ book called Your Baby’s First Word Will Be Dada. You can kind of guess what it’s about — and no, it’s not a joke. Not really.
“My oldest baby’s first word was ‘Mama,’” he says. “But my second baby. I’ll give you an update in a year. Because if this works, I deserve some kind of pediatric award. I deserve a doctorate or something.”
If it works, it’ll just be another nut Fallon has cracked, another seemingly random life event he’s bent to his will. Because things seem to happen the way Jimmy Fallon wants them to happen. When you’ve got rose-coloured pupils, everything tends to work out for the best.
By September, the late night landscape Fallon inherited will be very different. Letterman will have stepped down, bequeathing the reins of the Late Show on CBS to Stephen Colbert. James Corden will follow, opposite Seth Myers on NBC. Jimmy Kimmel will still be there, Jon Stewart won’t.
As Carson, Letterman and Leno have proved, hosting a late night talk show is a job you can have for life, if you do it right. So far, Fallon seems to be doing it right. Not that he’s getting ahead of himself. “I don’t even know if TV will be here in 10 years,” he says. “I might be doing the show for a mobile phone. But the way it’s going now, I could do the show forever.”
Of course, he’s not far off already. Those YouTube clips are his bread and butter, whether they’re viewed on computers or mobile phones. And in the few short years he’s been hosting one of TV’s most storied franchises, he’s already made quite the impression. He’s the man in America’s bedrooms (or living rooms or pockets) at 11:30 p.m., and he just wants to have some fun. Who wouldn’t want him around for a while?
“It’s almost like everyone has a friend in common around the country or around the world,” he says. “One day I’m going to have all white hair and people are going to be all like, ‘Remember when you used to be so happy and smile all the time?’
And I’ll just be like, ‘Get out!’ and slam the door…’”
Not because he’s angry or anything. But because, in all likelihood, he’ll be about to shave his chest, preparing to dress up as a 15-year-old girl. Because that’s what Jimmy Fallon does. And he’s not joking around.