FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION
‘Tonight Show’ Boss Katie Hockmeyer: Jimmy Fallon ‘Doesn’t Get Enough Credit’
The NBC veteran who has been with Jimmy Fallon from the start talks about the show’s attempts to stay above the political moment.
Katie Hockmeyer arrives to the penthouse of The Jeremy hotel in West Hollywood dressed, like the New Yorker that she is, in all black. The Tonight Show showrunner is in town on Jimmy Fallon’s behalf as part of NBC’s Emmy For Your Consideration campaign. Last year, Fallon failed to make the cut in the Emmy Awards’ Outstanding Variety Talk Series for the first time since 2010, an omission that the network is not eager to see repeated this year, especially in an increasingly crowded late-night field.
When I ask Hockmeyer, who started her career at NBC as an intern, how long she has been with the company, she has to think for a moment before realizing it’s been 18 years. “How can that be when I’m 21, right?” she jokes.
Even though The Tonight Show is on hiatus the week that we meet up in L.A., Hockmeyer says she’s keeping an eye on their competitors, especially Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel, who are airing new shows. “You have to know what your competition’s up to,” she says. At the same time, she tries to use these off-weeks to be “more of a mom” to her young children, attending baseball games and chaperoning school trips. “I try to overcompensate in the mom world.”
Hockmeyer became an NBC intern directly after she graduated college, working on the Today show, Dateline and Hardball with Chris Matthews, among other programs. From there, she was promoted to the famed NBC page program before becoming an assistant to Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, who also oversees The Tonight Show. She met Fallon during her time at SNL, where he was a cast member for seven seasons starting in 1998.
Already a fan of Fallon’s when she arrived at NBC after college, Hockmeyers remembers him doing “bits in the hallway with Fred Armisen all the time, unprompted.” She would see him laughing with Horatio Sanz or pitching “Weekend Update” ideas to writer Mike Shoemaker in the halls of 30 Rock. “He always had good energy and was always really kind,” she says of Fallon, who bought the NBC desk pages flowers at the end of the season. “He was the only cast member who did that.”
“Some people just stand out when you meet them. She was a standout,” Fallon tells The Daily Beast by email. “It’s a thrill to see Katie grow from a page to an assistant to my showrunner and partner. Just imagine how exciting it’s going to be when she’s running the network.”
Hockmeyer grew up a “Jersey girl,” as she puts it, in the tiny town of Saddle River, a little more than an hour north of Manhattan. Even then she says she was an NBC loyalist, watching Jay Leno’s Tonight Show in high school and then discovering Conan O’Brien in college. “I would watch the comedy pieces through the first guest and I then I’m sure I fell asleep,” she says of O’Brien’s Late Night, which came on after The Tonight Show at 12:35 a.m.
Lorne Michaels likes to say that everyone’s favorite SNL era typically lines up with their high school years. For Hockmeyer, that meant the seasons when Dana Carvey was singing “Choppin’ Broccoli” and playing Garth to Mike Myers’ Wayne in “Wayne’s World.”
“At first, being 22 years old and sitting in Lorne’s office as a girl from New Jersey you kind of pinch yourself because you can’t believe it,” she says, recalling times when she would have to tell him things like, “Um, Adam Sandler’s on the phone?”
Hockmeyer says she learned a lot from watching how Michaels manages the sprawling staff at SNL. “He just has a vision and he basically just taught me to always be on my game and make sure that you have good relationships, because relationships are key. So I think he was really good at driving that home at an early age.”
“I remember my heart would skip a beat every time I would see his cell phone number come up,” she adds. He was only ever calling her to see if he had any messages or to review his schedule for the day. “Nothing that scary,” she adds. “But he’s Lorne.”
From SNL, Hockmeyer was promoted yet again to become an assistant to NBC head Jeff Zucker—now running CNN—but she never felt at home on the corporate side of the entertainment business. “Because I worked for Jeff, I knew that the Late Night slot was opening up in 2009 and that Jimmy was up for it as the host,” she says. “I wanted to get back to comedy. I loved working at SNL and I felt like I’d learned as much as I could in the corporate world.”
Around that time, she went to an SNL after-party and cornered Shoemaker, who would be taking over the showrunner position at Late Night, where he still works today with Seth Meyers. Hockmeyer told Shoemaker she would “literally do anything” to join his team, from running audience giveaways to answering phones. “Whatever you need, please consider me,” she recalls telling him.
Shoemaker told her he wanted to hire people who had “never worked on a late-night show before” and Hockmeyer fit the bill. “It was a really awesome, exciting time,” she says now.
“Like every memory from an SNL after-party, that is hazy,” Shoemaker tells me in a direct message this week. “I'm surprised I wasn't the one begging her to come over.”
“I knew Katie when she was a page and when she worked in Lorne's office and then when she worked for Jeff Zucker and knew she was great,” Shoemaker adds. “My only worry was that after breathing the rarified air of the top echelon of the building that she wouldn't enjoy the sweaty cheese of craft services down on the studio level. But I knew she would be able to run the show easily. She's an old-fashioned problem solver in that every crisis registers on Katie but none of them phase her.”
In the fall of 2016, after seven years working directly with Fallon, Hockmeyer was promoted to become co-showrunner for The Tonight Show alongside Gerard Bradford and Mike DiCenzo, who oversee the creative side. “I’m on all, like, the unsexy part of the show,” she says, “managing the staff and working with the network on the budget and all that stuff that needs to happen.”
Her latest promotion coincided with the election of Donald Trump as president, an exciting time in late-night television, but also a rocky one for The Tonight Show. The general narrative has been that, by aggressively taking Trump head-on night after night, Stephen Colbert has stolen much of Fallon’s thunder, both in terms of cultural relevance and audience numbers.
Since Trump was elected, Colbert’s Late Show has steadily overtaken Fallon’s Tonight Show in total viewer ratings. Over the course of the 2017-2018 season, Colbert topped Fallon by an average of 1.17 million viewers, according to Nielsen’s numbers, the largest margin of victory for CBS over NBC since 1994. NBC is quick to remind the media that Fallon still maintains his lead among 18-49-year-olds.
DiCenzo, whom Hockmeyer calls “a visionary, and also a comedy nerd,” was the driving force behind Fallon’s overtly political parody version of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” which aired after this year’s Super Bowl. In the song, Fallon sang, “Come leaders who bully like internet trolls / we’ll curse you with four-letter words, love and hope / for we will go high even when you go low / the order is rearranging, for you have the power but we have the vote / the times they are a-changin’.”
“This is my favorite thing I’ve ever written,” DiCenzo tweeted that night. “I’ve seen pretty overwhelmingly positive reaction on Twitter and Facebook, which is rare,” he added in a subsequent interview. “I was proud of it and I was happy it seemed to connect with people.”
And yet, as tough as the song was on President Trump, it did not satisfy the show’s fiercest critics.
The Ringer’s television critic Alison Herman called the sketch a “lowlight” of a week she dedicated to watching the show. “One could see how the fusion of trenchant commentary and old-school Fallon antics would make sense to the Tonight Show staff; in practice, ‘Come women and men who hashtag #MeToo / And believe me when I say that we believe you’ is a thousand times worse than any outright parody could possibly be,” she wrote in February. “The only thing more painful than watching a moment pass is watching those left behind try to catch up with it.”
This type of criticism clearly rankles Hockmeyer and the rest of the team at The Tonight Show.
“I think we’re not given enough credit or appreciated for the high-production value that we put on every single night,” Hockmeyer says. “We are a variety show. It’s not just a monologue. Jimmy is the ultimate host, I think. He sings, he dances, he does impersonations. And he’s an actual fan of pop culture. So I think we don’t get enough credit for that.” She notes that in 2009, when Fallon started Late Night, he was “getting people off the couch.”
“Back in the day, people weren’t doing that,” she continues. “And he kind of reinvigorated the late-night format.” She says she never could have imagined “in a million years” that they would get Tom Cruise to do a lip-sync battle with Fallon. “How awesome was that?” she asks.
“He changed the landscape and made it fun again and showcased other personalities from the talent coming on, instead of just asking them about their project,” Hockmeyer says. “I think he really lightened up the format and made it different for the viewers.”
And yet it’s not clear that what late-night viewers are looking for in 2018 is lightness, as evidenced by the Tonight Show’s precipitous drop in ratings.
“There’s different ways to measure success,” Hockmeyer says, pointing out that while The Tonight Show has nearly 17 million subscribers on YouTube, The Late Show has little more than four million. “That’s where the younger viewers are watching us. It’s the future and we try to keep our fingers on the pulse and stay with that.”
“Jimmy doesn’t try to be somebody that he’s not,” she says. “He’s an entertainer, so that’s what we try to do. But in his own way, he addresses it every single night in the monologue.” That often includes handing the heavier criticism of Trump over to comedians like SNL writer Julio Torres, who has spoken out as a gay immigrant, or writer Jo Firestone, who plays a hilariously clueless version of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in a recurring segment. “We do it in our own way.”
Hockmeyer’s comments echo the way Fallon defended himself from critics after he ended a softball interview with Donald Trump just two months before the 2016 election by playfully tousling the then-candidate’s hair. “It’s just not what I do,” Fallon told NBC’s Willie Geist last year about the type of hard-hitting political jokes or interviews for which Colbert is known. “I think it would be weird for me to start doing it now. I don’t really even care that much about politics—I’ve got to be honest.”
“Of course, no one likes to be criticized and in that moment I don’t think anyone knew what the future was going to hold,” Hockmeyer says of the backlash to the Trump interview. “But I feel like we’ve moved on from that and we’ve done a lot of wonderful things this year.”
One of Fallon’s most effective moments on The Tonight Show in the Trump era came in August of last year amidst the uproar over the president’s reaction to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville.
“Even though The Tonight Show isn’t a political show, it is my responsibility to stand up against intolerance and extremism as a human being,” an emotional Fallon said that night. “The fact that it took the president two days to come out and clearly denounce racists and white supremacists is shameful,” he added. “And I think he finally spoke out because people everywhere stood up and said something. It’s important for everyone—especially white people—in this country to speak out against this. Ignoring it is just as bad as supporting it.”
“As a parent, when it comes to kids, those are the people he connects with and identifies with and understands,” Hockmeyer explains. “That’s when he becomes vocal.”
In some ways, a poignant segment this past October in which the show’s female writers read “Thank You Notes” to Hillary Clinton, served as a bookend of sorts to the problematic Trump interview. The desk bit, which also featured Miley Cyrus thanking Clinton for being a “constant beacon of strength, hope, and determination for me and millions of other young women,” was the perfect example of what Fallon and his team are striving to accomplish in this political moment, simultaneously uplifting yet not too tough on Donald Trump.
“And again, sometimes I feel like, if we do do something political, we don’t get credit for that either,” Hockmeyer says. In her words, Fallon is “trying to stay true to who he is and not try to be someone else because maybe that’s where the tide has turned for the moment.”
“At the end of the day, we want people to go to bed feeling happy and smiling and not filled with anxiety and angst,” she adds. “If you want to watch somebody go on a political rant, there’s many other places to turn.”