What you need to know about Jimmy Fallon and his new 'Tonight Show' gig

10:34 AM, Feb 16, 2014   |    comments
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Photo Gallery: Jimmy Fallon through the years
Jimmy Fallon hosts 'Late Night With Jimmy Fallon' at Rockefeller Center on January 28, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)



(Free Press) -- The competition at Sochi isn't all on the slopes or inside the rink. Right in the middle of NBC's Olympics coverage, Jimmy Fallon is making a leap more difficult than a triple lutz - the move from his old "Late Night" gig to his new "Tonight Show" throne.

He officially takes over as host on Monday night with Will Smith and U2 as his first guests. Other visitors the first week include Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper and first lady Michelle Obama.

Fallon is the sixth man to have the job in the show's 60-year history. His loyal fans know what to expect, since he plans to keep doing what he does best. But for "Tonight Show" viewers who rarely stay awake past the monologue, he's a relative stranger.

What do you need to know about the "Saturday Night Live" alum who speaks fluent pop culture and has triple-threat skills in comedy, music and hashtags? Welcome to Jimmy Fallon 101, a primer on the man who could become the millenials' Johnny Carson. What follows includes Fallon's own comments from a November visit to Detroit.

Who is this nice young fellow anyway? Fallon spent six years on "Saturday Night Live." He co-anchored "Weekend Update" with Tina Fey and was a very angry Barry Gibb on "The Barry Gibb Talk Show." He survived many bad haircuts and a tendency to crack up during sketches.

In 2004, Fallon left "SNL" to try a movie career, which led to "Taxi," a not-so-good comedy costarring Queen Latifah, and "Fever Pitch," an endearing baseball-centric rom-com with Drew Barrymore. He came to Detroit briefly for filming of the roller derby comedy "Whip It" with Barrymore.

In 2009, he officially succeeded Conan O'Brien at "Late Night" and was a low-key presence during the NBC fiasco that brought Jay Leno back to the "Tonight Show" and sent a fuming O'Brien off to TBS.

Fallon told the Free Press that "SNL" creator Lorne Michaels went to bat for him with the network to get him the job. "I'll never forget that. ... I can't even tell you how much I love the guy," said Fallon.

What's his comedy strategy as host? Volume, volume, volume! Fallon's "Late Night" was always crammed with comedy. Besides the monologue, there would be one or two comedy bits at the desk each night, plus maybe an elaborate parody of a hit series like "Breaking Bad" or an absurd audience participation game like "Wheel of Carpet Samples."

"We just went in saying, like, 'Look, if we're going to get exhausted by this, we're going to get exhausted, but let's just keep doing it,' " Fallon says of the show's busy rhythm.

And his writing team continually updates the repertoire with new segments, like the recently introduced "Superlatives" that gives high school yearbook-type awards to pro sports figures. Example: New Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell was named "Most Likely to Scold Urkel."

What's his secret weapon? Killer musical skills. Fallon's dead-on impressions of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie have been collected into an album of parodies titled "Blow Your Pants Off" (with a cheeky photo of the host on the cover).

But it's not just his mimicry that's impressive. It's the combination of rock star impersonation and creative material, like his Jim Morrison turning the "Reading Rainbow" theme into a trippy Doors song or his '60s-era Dylan bringing a folk vibe to the "Charles in Charge" theme.

Fallon frequently teams up with rock legends for bits. He recently was joined by Bruce Springsteen for a version of "Born to Run" with rewritten lyrics to address the bridge scandal plaguing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Why do celebrities like him so much? Besides being a genuine fan of most of his guests, Fallon prefers to skip the two-segment conversation rule with his lead guest whenever possible and spend one segment playing a game instead.

He's faced off against Tom Cruise in Egg Russian roulette, which involves smacking an egg against one's forehead to see whether it's raw or hard-boiled. He's played beer pong with Betty White. Party staples like Charades, Password and Catchphrase are favorites, and they often lead to moments like when cooking star Giada De Laurentiis gave Fallon the Catchphrase clue that she has this for breakfast every morning.

Recalled Fallon, " 'How the heck do I know what you have for breakfast? I don't live with you!' " It's just those things that happen, the unscripted parts sometimes are better than anything you have written."

Why is he a viral champ? Fallon is bound to introduce the "Tonight Show" to the wired world. He has gotten big next-day play for "Late Night" skits like "Downton Sixbey," an elaborate re-creation of "Downton Abbey," and unscripted contests like an epic lip-sync showdown between himself, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and British actor Stephen Merchant (who performed Beyoncé's "Single Ladies").

Fallon also crowd-sources comedy through the running bit "#Hashtags," where viewers submit tweets on a theme and he reads them on the air. The bit regularly becomes a worldwide trending topic on Twitter and the results can be priceless. To #MomText, for instance, one contributor shared, "I once got a text from my mom where 'You're amazing' autocorrected to, 'You're adopted.' "

Why are the Roots essential? The hip-hop band from Philadelphia will remain as Fallon's house band. With apologies to Paul Shaffer, they're the best band in late night, plus they've become essential supporting characters in sketches. Tariq Trotter, for instance, slow-jams the news with Fallon and special guests like NBC News anchor Brian Willams and, one memorable time, President Barack Obama.

The Roots also join Fallon for reinventions of pop hits, like the version of "Call Me Maybe" they did with Carly Rae Jepsen using toy instruments.

"I had no idea they were funny at all. I had no idea they could act. I just knew they could play music and then we just palled around, goofing off backstage and we kind of hit it off," said Fallon.

Who's that guy in the glasses? He's Fallon's sidekick, Steve Higgins, who'll be making the transition to the "Tonight Show" as well.

A producer-writer for "Saturday Night Live" who looks like a Midwest insurance salesman, Higgins is prone to interjecting non sequiturs and randy wordplay into the mix.

Less concerned about stepping on Fallon's toes than Andy Richter is with Conan O'Brien, Higgins is often on a mission to crack up Fallon - and when they go off on a tangent, the results can be hilariously obscure.

Fallon clearly gets a kick out of his announcer-second banana. On his final "Late Night" episode, Fallon shared one of his favorite bloopers: the time Higgins' pants accidentally fell down.

Which recurring comedy bits will come with him? Most are expected to come along for the ride. "Late Night" staples include "Audience Suggestion Box" and "Pros and Cons."

Fallon said he loves nonsensical riffs like "Wheel of Carpet Samples," explaining, "I think it's so British, so Monty Python." He wants to keep familiar characters like Peggy Hess, the smarmy host of "Celebrity Whispers," which adds dialogue to clips of stars talking to each other.

"Anything good, we're bringing," he admitted.

Which will he leave behind? Some of the older physical comedy may get a rest, like "Models and Buckets," in which audience members choose a model holding a bucket and get the messy contents dumped on their heads, all in search of the one bucket with a cash prize.

"It was kind of a spoof of 'Deal or No Deal' anyways, which is an old term now," he said.

Fallon also told USA Today that he's played his last game of Bubble Soccer, a competition that puts him and guests like "Today" weekend anchor Lester Holt inside giant plastic bubbles.

Why is the "Tonight Show" moving to New York? The Big Apple is Fallon's current home base and was also the site of the show until Carson moved it to Los Angeles in 1972. "It should be in New York," says Fallon, who's also tweaking the title, changing it from "The Tonight Show With ..." of the Leno era to "The Tonight Show Starring ..." - another Carson callback.

Along with the convenience, remaining in New York offers Fallon proximity to his pals at "SNL," who frequently drop by for segments, and to the new "Late Night" with Seth Meyers. They're all happily ensconced at 30 Rockefeller Center.

"That's the way it used to be and that's the way it should be. Drop-ins. Come and hang out. If you're in the building, come and say hi to us," said Fallon.

What's the studio going to be like? Crazy cool and New York-centric, and yet basically the same size as his current compact home. He said in November that it will have more seats than his "Late Night" digs but will retain a small atmosphere. And on his last "Late Night" show, he illustrated how close it was by exiting his old studio walking down the hall and through the doors of his new set.

At one point in the brainstorming for the new "Tonight Show," Fallon shared, "they talked about making it two floors and putting a giant movie theater in there, a screen, before talking to me. When they talked to me, I said, 'Look, I don't need a movie theater screen. I don't know what that's going to do for me. I don't know if I want a balcony. I like it intimate.' "

Fallon said the new set is gorgeous and tailored for great sound: "The guys who did Lincoln Center are doing our walls and our acoustics." It's more proof of how seamlessly he's made music a key component of his format.

Who'll be his favorite guests? That's easy. Justin Timberlake, his prime collaborator in comic inventions like "The History of Rap."

Cast members of "SNL." Alumni of "SNL" like Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell. Idols like Springsteen and McCartney. But Fallon has a unique knack of making every guest feel like a favorite. It's perhaps his true common denominator with Carson, who was more suave but just as universally welcoming.

Now the big question: What's replacing "Headlines"? Jay Leno's Monday night staple was possibly America's favorite comedy bit. What does Fallon have that matches it?

"Thank You Notes," of course. Every Friday, Fallon asks the audience if they'd mind giving him a little time to catch up with his correspondence. Then he dashes off random thoughts on various subjects, all to the hauntingly beautiful "Thank You Notes" music provided by Roots keyboardist James Poyser, the king of wistful glances.

Here's a sample: "Thank you, Discovery Channel's 'Naked and Afraid' for sounding like a reality show about my love life in college."

So sit back, relax and consider falling asleep to the new "Tonight Show." In no time at all, you might be saying, thank you, Jimmy Fallon, for being you.

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