The New King of Late Night TV: Jimmy Fallon A Little Song, A Little Dance, A Little Seltzer In Your Pants

June 4, 2014 by  

The New King of Late Night TV: Jimmy Fallon A Little Song, A Little Dance, A Little Seltzer In Your Pants, At Frankies Spuntino restaurant in Brooklyn, Jimmy Fallon orders the peppers with anchovies to share. “So great. Phenomenal. You will not believe.” it’s a homey place, tight and worn, unmistakably Brooklyn cool, and not far from the new Barclays Center arena, where we’re headed next to watch a Nets-Lakers game. “You haven’t been there yet?” Fallon says. “No? No. It’s so great!” He claps. Clap clap clap. “I get to introduce you.” He looks back at the menu. “So, some meatballs? Eggplant parm? We’ll just do some aps, get to the game by halftime? Whatever you want. Easy. Easy-peasy.” It is impossible to disagree with him.

Fallon says he’s kind of ADD: “Not, like, diagnosed. Just my personality. Like, I read one chapter of a book and put it down. Thank God for Kindle.” At 38 he still has a chiseled face, no bags, no fatigue, and he holds his shoulders high, like he’s in a state of constant inhale, cocked and loaded and ready to deliver you a gift. He is joyful, easy, breezy, and if there is a buzz about him now, it is in the context of the Leno-Letterman game of chicken—both of their contracts are up in 2014. Anyone paying attention can see that the famously improbable Fallon is getting groomed for the Tonight Show throne. Even Late Night executive producer Lorne Michaels concedes as much: “I’m not allowed to say it—yet. But I think there’s an inevitability to it. He’s the closest to Carson that I’ve seen of this generation.”

Fallon and I are just coming from a Late Night taping, where the audience was small, maybe 200 people, and the feel was intimate. “The biggest star on the planet!” Fallon said, and the blue curtain parted and out came Justin Bieber, doe-eyed, with a pompadour, skeleton arms jangling out of a camo jacket. “I missed you, man,” Fallon said to him and told him how awesome he was, and then it was time to go on over and shoot random items at a basketball hoop—an iced cappuccino, a big bowl of ramen noodles. Noodles? Bieber missed every shot, but Fallon went girlie-underhand with his noodles, heaved, and the great blast of yellow flew through the air, free, gross, slimy—the whole thing was so stupid, so inane—and yet the Fallon gospel was clear: It’s okay, America. It’s okay to lie there in your bed hoping with all your heart that some friggin’ noodles plop through a basketball hoop. The noodles swished through the net, became entangled, a kind of satisfying vomit, and all the people cheered.

“I’m so happy right now. So happy,” Fallon says. The peppers have arrived. A plate of four lying like limp soldiers in olive oil. “It’s good, right?” Then the clap—clap clap clap.
Fallon tells me about first starting Late Night, how he knew audiences were dubious. “They were like, ‘Jimmy Fallon?’ ” He had killed during his six-season run on SNL, from 1998 to 2004, alongside Will Ferrell, Tracy Morgan, Amy Poehler, and “Weekend Update” co-anchor Tina Fey. Then he left to go do movies (Fever Pitch, Taxi) that tanked, and which made Lorne Michaels’s selecting him for Late Night all the weirder. NBC hated the idea at first, but Michaels was bullheaded; he would only do the show with Fallon.

“NBC was like, ‘This is going to flop,’ ” Fallon recalls. ” ‘This is going to be like Chevy Chase’s show.’ ” That legendary catastrophe was pulled from the air after just one month. “They were comparing me to that.”

The point is, Fallon knew he was an odd choice—he got it. He had his writers use it almost immediately. “You loved him on SNL!” show announcer Steve Higgins declared in an early skit. “You hated him in the movies! Now you’re ambivalent.”

Fallon wasn’t edgy. Fallon wasn’t dark or complicated. Fallon was perhaps too cute for late-night audiences used to hanging out with the snarky, cool crowd. “Yeah, the cool crowd was always beyond my grasp,” he says. He means this literally. “Like, my parents had a fence, a chain-link fence, and my sister and I were not allowed outside it.” This was in upstate New York—Saugerties, Irish Catholic, strict. “I was only allowed to ride my bike in my backyard,” he says. He rode in a circle, round and round, carving a dirt track. “Like Gus the polar bear at the zoo? That was me. Kids would say, ‘What are you doing, man? Come out.’ I was like, ‘I can’t.’ We got a rope swing. On a tree. We had to wear football helmets to ride the swing. Kids could see us. They would pull up on their bikes so they could watch the Fallon kids, so weird. You know, ‘Why are you wearing football helmets?’ We’re like, ‘So we don’t hit our heads!’ ”

His parents had parties; that was the entertainment. “Parties where everyone drinks and performs. I did a Rodney Dangerfield act.” He studied Dangerfield’s No Respect album—minus the curse words. His dad, as family lore goes, had located all the bad words on the vinyl recording and painstakingly scratched them out with a car key. “I would listen over and over. I didn’t know what the word was. I didn’t care. I wanted the jokes.”

A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer in your pants, said the quote under his high school yearbook picture. He dropped out of college his senior year to pursue comedy in L.A., where Michaels found him, laughed at his Adam Sandler impersonation, even though Michaels famously never laughed during auditions. Seeing Michaels bury his face in his hands, crack up like that, it answered everything. “Every birthday cake I cut,” he says. “Every shooting star, every coin in the fountain, I wished: SNL.”

On the show, he was the guy who couldn’t keep it together, who laughed during sketches. “Definitely a comedy foul. Lorne didn’t like it. I didn’t like it. But the sketches I laughed in became popular. At the end, it was like the audience was waiting. The studio started to shake. Like an earthquake. I couldn’t hold it in anymore. Torture.”

People criticized him for it, but audiences didn’t care. Fallon’s brand of comedy included the audience in the experience, and that, it would turn out, was prescient. “On Late Night, it’s like we’re all in on the joke,” he says “That’s what I wanted it to be. I’m not doing something sneaky. Inside jokes, I don’t like those. We can all ride together, and everyone’s on the same thing going, ‘Aha, I know where you’re going here.’ And if we get weird, everyone knows, ‘Okay, we’ll go for that little ride of being weird.’ Or if I go, okay, I’m going to try to be Neil Young and sing ‘Pants on the Ground.’ We’re all just going to ride it out, laugh, and we’re going to be like, ‘This is so silly,’ but it’s happening.

Jimmy Fallon A Little Song, A Little Dance, A Little Seltzer In Your Pants

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