On a night when David Letterman announced to Katie Couric that “television is dead!”—just to prove him wrong, Craig Ferguson was talking to Paris Hilton about cleavage and my friend Jimmy Fallon was doing a skit on his first Late Night called “Lick It for Ten,” in which audience members put their tongues on a lawn mower, a printer, and a bowl of goldfish for $10 each. Riveting stuff. David, you may be on to something.
For the fun of it, let’s pretend that television is not dead but merely an occasional visitor to intensive care. And like that tough Irishman Conan O’Brien—who was torched when he debuted as the host of Late Night 16 years ago—Jimmy Fallon ought to be given a little time before we send him to intensive care. So let’s not let “Lick It for Ten” define his career just yet. Do you remember your first day on the job?
When Fallon first came out from behind his very own curtains on his very own late-night talk show, my first thought was, “Oh no, its Bobby Jindal again.” Reading somebody else’s words (“Just before I went on, Rush Limbaugh called me up and said he wants me to fail.”) and not bringing us the Jimmy Fallon we rightly expected. (I mean even his Pat O’Brien impersonation is more entertaining than last night’s monologue, which was, at best, a bundled-up nervous mess.)
But let’s be fair about it: First night, right? And let’s be fair about this, too—it takes a bigger man than I to try and make an immediate impression as a talk-show host by bringing on Robert De Niro to talk. I’ve tried it. He doesn’t. But points to Fallon and “Bob” for trying to make fun of his famous dislike of the genre. (And De Niro’s impersonation of Fallon was priceless.)
Make no mistake, talk shows are brutal. The aforementioned Conan O’Brien and I once sat in his 30 Rockefeller office shortly after he took over the hour’s worth of late night that Fallon now occupies. We chatted about this beast called television. “I used to watch Johnny and those guys and all you people in sports and I said to myself, ‘Hey, this looks easy.’” He was right. It looks easy. I’m here to tell you, it’s not. Ask Chevy Chase, Joan Rivers, Alan Thicke, Magic Johnson, Dennis Miller and a bunch of other people who are way off the talk-show radar. So far off, they are collective stealth. Now, don’t get me wrong—Chevy, Joan, Alan, Magic, and Dennis are all talented, accomplished people—but getting a talk-show audience, entertaining a talk-show audience, and holding a talk-show audience is another animal. Those few who have successfully been able to pull that off are an elite group, indeed.
My personal pantheon would include Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, Steve Allen, and Dick Cavett, who always seemed the most curious about his guests, whether it was Jimi Hendrix, Lucille Ball, Groucho Marx, or Truman Capote. I emailed my friend Cavett and asked him if he had any advice for Fallon and, as it turned out, Dick had just dropped off a first edition of his book Cavett (“in case his was worn out”).
“Under the section Inside the Monster, I urged him to ‘profit from my pain,’” Cavett wrote to me. “I included the serious practical advice that a good physical workout—tennis, swimming, Aikido, a tough dance class, or vigorous massage (or, if available, you-know-what) shortly before airtime works magically. Followed, if so disposed, by a tablespoon of dry vermouth.” Cavett’s email ended with “the greatest advice I ever got when I started—from former boss, Jack Paar—which was: “Don’t ever do interviews, kid. That smacks of clipboards and David Frost and ‘What’s your pet peeve.’ Make it a conversation.”
It takes a bigger man than I to try and make an immediate impression as a talk-show host by bringing on Robert De Niro to talk. I’ve tried it. He doesn’t.
In a world where “licensing” Octomom for an “exclusive” after she was on the Today show or wasting air time inside Donny and Marie’s closet, it’s nice to have “conversations” again here and there. In the morning, it doesn’t get much better than Matt Lauer’s. In the afternoon, I’ll take Chris Matthews’ insights and “argu-vations” any day. And at night, I’ll invite Letterman, Kimmel, and O’Brien into my home for just about anything they want to talk about. So why would Jimmy Fallon waste his time on skits like “Lick It for Ten” and “Blonde Mothers from Connecticut”? I’ll tell you why—he’s trying to enter the conversation with something new. Don’t look for those two segments again, but I loved “Slow Jammin’ the News” featuring his house band, the legendary Roots. That has the makings of the next “Weekend Update” with reverb. And then it was up to Jimmy and his second guest, Justin Timberlake, to demonstrate how entertaining a talk show can be when you just let it happen. I presume that’s why Tina Fey is up tonight for Fallon’s second show, doing her best impersonation of an All-Star cleanup batter.
So what’s today going to be like for Jimmy Fallon? He’ll be Twittered, Facebooked, Skyped, MySpaced, and blogged into an early television grave. Not because he deserves it, but because that’s the way it works now. The anonymous forces can be pretty brave and unnecessarily cruel when their handles are things like “BasementCritic” or “Journocop.” And what’s left of the entertainment shows will eventually come up with something titillating like “Jimmy Fallon’s Troubled Past!”—which ends up being that he got a parking ticket or something. Even Jimmy said himself, “I’ll probably be judged on the first show.”
That’s because it’s a world where everything and everybody is in a rush for more money, more ratings, and more success. Gimme gimme gimme now—I want what I want when I want it. It’s a television world where if at first you don’t succeed… goodbye.
Last night, Jimmy Fallon seemed to be in a rush just to say hello. Maybe it was the pressure of all that buildup. Maybe it was nerves. (Understandable.) Maybe it was OMG! De Niro, JT, Van Morrison and The Roots and me in only an hour?
Jimmy, you don’t need to say “hello” here—we already know you. So take Cavett’s advice—make it a conversation. And here’s mine: It’s a simple theory about traveling at the speed of light for success—hasten slowly.
And, oh, Jimmy? If you do decide to bring back “Lick It for Ten”? Make it 50, buddy. We’re in a Depression out here.
Pat O'Brien has been a broadcaster for more than three decades, including many years as the co-host of Access Hollywood and The Insider . A former anchor for CBS Sports, he is also the author of Talkin' Sports: A B.S.-er's Guide. He divides his time among Los Angeles, New York, and Nantucket.