New Tonight Show Host Jimmy Fallon, Nearest Thing To Carson, Well, Since Carson

Late Night With Jimmy Fallon

Photo by The Associated Press

I know this is blasphemy to purists, but new Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon really is the nearest comparison to the late great Johnny Carson. Ever since Carson retired from the Tonight Show in 1992, no other late night talk show host has personified him as Fallon does.  I can see you shaking your head, but hear me out.

It’s not that I think Fallon is a carbon-copy of Carson, that would be silly. Nobody can stand in Carson’s shoes. Nobody. But think about the other late night talk show hosts and what their strengths are.

Jay Leno, for whom Fallon replaces, is a straight-up joke-teller, he is a classic stand-up comedian, if there is such a thing. Leno is a capable interviewer, but his strength will always be stand-up.

David Letterman has a dry, sometimes goofy wit, with an unconventional yet effective interviewing style.

Jimmy Kimmel is what happens if your funny next-door neighbor gets a late night hosting gig. Kimmel isn’t the first choice for joke-teller or interviewer, but he gets the job done, no fuss.

Conan O’Brien is a self-deprecating goofball of a late night talk show host. You either like him or you hate him, and the same is true of his side-kick, Andy Richter.

Craig Ferguson is the loose cannon of the bunch. Ferguson’s strength is improvisation, and his interviews are definitely the least predictable of all late night talk shows.

And now back to Jimmy Fallon, who took over ‘Late Night’ five years ago when Conan left for his limited Tonight Show tenure. When Late Night with Jimmy Fallon premiered, it was a train wreck from the start, as sketches fell flat, bits didn’t work and were not revisited, and many jokes bombed. But remember, Conan O’Brien suffered the same fate nearly two decades earlier, and only after several years did he manage to make Late Night with Conan O’Brien the success that it became.

Johnny Carson

Library of Congress, NY World Collection

So what makes Fallon similar to Carson? It’s the youthful enthusiasm (yes, I said youthful) matched with a variety show mentality. Remember, Carson was in his late 30s when he took over the Tonight Show in the early 1960s. And think about it, out of all the late night talk shows of the past half century, The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson was as much a variety show as it was a talk show. People most remember the celebrity guest appearances and Carson’s charming wit, but they forget all the sketch comedy that was integral part of Carson’s Tonight Show. And that’s where Fallon is the most similar. You could compare Carson’s ‘Art Fern’ and ‘Floyd R. Turbo’ with Fallon’s spot on impersonation of Neil Young or his many other musical impressions including Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie. Remember ‘Carnac The Magnificent’? You could compare that with Fallon’s ‘Thank You Notes’. Or how about Carson’s ‘Stump The Band’ and Fallon’s ‘Slow Jam The News’?

And even outgoing Tonight Show host Jay Leno is in agreement here, saying on CBS’s ’60 Minutes’, “[Jimmy Fallon] is probably more like a young Johnny [Carson] than almost anybody since.”

While Fallon is not Carson when it comes to the interview desk, he does have his own unique charm. But where Fallon most honors Caron’s legacy is in the area of sketch comedy and the many bits and skits that made Late Night with Jimmy Fallon a success. While their specific strengths and talents are different, Fallon, just as Carson, is a late night host who fully involves himself in every on-air aspect of the show. And that is why Fallon is the nearest thing to Carson, since Carson.

Noteworthy Trivia:

The Tonight Show moves back to 30 Rockefeller Plaza (‘Rockefeller Center’ or simply ’30 Rock’) in New York City after a 40+ year run in Burbank, CA.

The show, originally called “Tonight,” first aired September 26, 1954 with host Steve Allen from the Hudson Theatre in New York City.

“Tonight” changed hosts and venues in 1957 when it moved to Studio 6B at 30 Rock with host Jack Paar. 

The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon will tape from Studio 6B, the same studio the show occupied when Jack Paar hosted. Johnny Carson also hosted “The Tonight Show” from Studio 6B for ten years before moving the show to California to gain greater access to Hollywood celebrities.

There have been six Tonight Show hosts: Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, and Jimmy Fallon

Of the six Tonight Show hosts, four had the word “starring” precede their name (Allen, Paar, Carson, Fallon) and two had the word “with” precede their name (Leno, O’Brien). The Tonight Show “starring” Jimmy Fallon returns the show to it’s naming roots (at least back to the Carson era).

Studio 6B is also where Jimmy Fallon has hosted “Late Night” since taking over the show in 2009.

To free up Studio 6B for the “Tonight” makeover, for the past six months (since August 2013), Jimmy Fallon has hosted “Late Night” from a duplicate stage set located across the hall in Studio 6A, previously used for the “Dr. Oz Show.” Studio 6A is also where Conan O’Brien and David Letterman hosted Late Night.

New “Late Night” host Seth Meyers will not host from 6A, instead his new studio is 8G, located next to the famed Studio 8H (Saturday Night Live).

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