Television

Jimmy Fallon Takes The Reins — But Can He Drive?

Jimmy Fallon has had a rough go of it, critically speaking, as we head into tonight's premiere of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, when he will take over for the departing Conan O'Brien (who's taking over for Jay Leno, who's taking over for Hill Street Blues and ER and L.A. Law, which is where the whole thing starts to look a little hinky).

Where the dubious prognosticating is right and where it's wrong, after the jump...

Even the praise for Fallon tends to be resolutely grudging, and given Fallon's reputation for blowing Saturday Night Live sketches with the utterly bush-league maneuver of laughing hysterically at his own jokes, there's been good reason for concern. But the issue isn't really whether Jimmy Fallon can theoretically succeed. He was a good Weekend Update co-anchor; there's no question he can do a late-night show.

The question is whether the show is going to have a distinct point of view. Whatever your view of David Letterman or Conan O'Brien (or Johnny Carson or Jay Leno), those shows all had a way of looking at material. Johnny Carson wasn't beloved for his ability to tell jokes without breaking — he laughed at himself all the time, even in stuff that's theoretically sketch comedy like Karnak, and it didn't hurt. He was beloved because he was both self-deprecating and cutting; in a way, both a warm and a cool presence.

Letterman is more of an exasperated goof; Conan is a cheap-giggle/sharp-wit wire-walker; Jay Leno is a meatball pitch in the middle of the strike zone at the precise mathematical average of the comedic sensibilities of all Americans who can be talked into staying up until midnight.

Watching Fallon's interview with Matt Lauer last Friday morning, it's not clear where Fallon's sensibility is going to fall, but it's going to have to be more than "I put my desk where Johnny Carson's desk was." Webisodes are not a sensibility; webcams are not a sensibility; Twitter is emphatically not a sensibility. All those things are fine, provided you have something to say. If you have nothing to say, they are doodads.

There's a flicker of promise in this clip of Fallon talking to the Late Night interns, but look how slow it is, and how high the ratio of bad moments to good ones turns out to be:

Fallon's persona as a Weekend Update anchor was pretty irreverent, and the combination of his accessible smirk and the wickedness of the material was part of what worked. If he goes the route of calculated inoffensiveness, which is the scent floating off this interview, he's going to be in a heap of trouble, because NBC already has a Jay Leno, and he's going to be on two-and-a-half hours earlier.

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