After a few weeks of rumors and late-night-monologue teases, NBC has made it official. Next February, in conjunction with the Winter Olympics, Jimmy Fallon will take over “The Tonight Show” from Jay Leno, whose contract will be up. Furthermore, NBC will move the show from Los Angeles to New York, where it was based in its early years.
Of course, it’s not over till it’s over, since the last handoff of “The Tonight Show,” from NBC to Conan O’Brien in 2009, ended in disaster and bad feelings all around. But in this go-round, Leno seems at peace with the change, telling the New York Times, “The main difference between this and the other time is I’m part of the process. The last time the decision was made without me.” Leno and Fallon even made a jokey video together earlier this week, to the tune of “Tonight” from “West Side Story,” with Leno looking noticeably resigned.
This is a smart move by NBC, and not only because Fallon is a more serious long-term competitor for younger viewers now that Jimmy Kimmel has taken the ABC slot opposite “The Tonight Show.” Fallon has a fresh creative energy in tune with today’s media temperament, as he and his staff develop amusing born-to-go-viral sequences. He also has theme weeks, inviting musicians such as Justin Timberlake to sit in with him every night and honoring the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen with a series of cover artists.
When Fallon listens to his guests, he smiles and exudes genuine curiosity. It’s the superficial talk-show genre, and he’s not going to probe, but still, he appears to enjoy the conversations. He is clearly a fan of many of his guests and performers, but never obsequiously so.
Leno, on the other hand, has seemed burned out for years now, and his dinner-club comedy style has fallen behind the times. You can feel him going through the motions every night, dutifully asking inane questions and displaying very little interest in making his guests entertaining. He has kept NBC in the No. 1 late-night slot, but his energy level and his passion for invention have dropped. He’s almost machinelike now. Fallon brings an enthusiasm for hosting that Leno has lost as the years and the dramas have taken their toll on him.
Ratings wise, “The Tonight Show” isn’t what it was back in the days of Johnny Carson, now that there are so many other late-night and DVR options. The numbers have dropped, and the series plays almost no role in the cultural conversation, while the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert take the spotlight. But more than Leno, Fallon stands a chance of ushering “The Tonight Show” into some kind of relevance.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.