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A new 'Tonight' dawns with Jimmy Fallon as host


NEW YORK (AP) - On the walls of Jimmy Fallon's office are photos. Lots of photos. Of his 2007 marriage to film producer Nancy Juvonen. Of their 6-month-old daughter, Winnie. Of his mom and dad as newlyweds. Fallon points them all out to a visitor proudly.

But the dominant photo is a portrait of Johnny Carson, aglow in front of his "Tonight Show" drapes.

"I look at that every day," says Fallon, "and just go, 'Yeah - it's SO fun!'"

Already Fallon is immersed in this kind of fun. For five years he hosted NBC's "Late Night," a job he relinquished only days ago. And now he's looking ahead to the Big Show, "The Tonight Show," where Monday, at the special time of 12 midnight EST, he retrieves Carson's mantle - back in New York after 42 years in Los Angeles.

"It's giant! It's a big TV moment!" says Fallon. "Even if it wasn't me, I would tune in to watch."

A Manhattan home base perfectly suits its new host, a consummate New Yorker, while bringing it under the same hallowed roof (NBC's Rockefeller Center headquarters) as "Late Night" and "Saturday Night Live," other jewels in the crown of Lorne Michaels, its new executive producer.

It also allows "Tonight" to make a clean break from its turbulent post-Carson era under Jay Leno (and, fleetingly, Conan O'Brien), when the Carson-bequeathed formula of jokes, celebs and chitchat was, too often, upstaged by behind-the-scenes soap opera.

Leno was consistently the late-night ratings winner, but never won much respect from the public, critics, or even his own network, which twice sent him packing from "Tonight."

Back in New York, where both "The Tonight Show" and Carson as its host made their start, this 60-year-old TV institution is poised to pick up the legend from where it languished after Carson's 1992 retirement.

The show will even recommission that sacred space - Studio 6B - where Carson reigned before his 1972 move west.

"I wish Johnny Carson was still around, so he could see what we did with his studio," says Fallon. "I can't WAIT to show everybody!"

But even as the 39-year-old waxes eagerness about the new "Tonight Show," he wants everyone to know it won't really be so different, after all: essentially an hour-earlier "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," including its house band, the Roots (though this eight-piece ensemble will expand by two horns), its announcer-sidekick, Steve Higgins, and comic bits like "Slow Jam the News" and "Thank-you Notes."

"When we started 'Late Night,' we were DOING 'Late Night,'" Fallon explains, "but over five years it's kind of grown, and blossomed into what it became, which is 'The Tonight Show.' We grew into it!"

Fallon first became popular during his six years on "Saturday Night Live," where he displayed a chameleonic range of characters and impersonations, plus a musicality that grants him uncanny skill at mimicking numerous recording stars.

His 2004 departure from "SNL" to pursue a film career didn't pan out, particularly with the comedy flop "Taxi," in which he co-starred with Queen Latifah (who now has her own talk show, in daytime).

"I learned a lesson from that movie," he says. "I definitely appreciate everything I get now, where I probably wouldn't have if that movie was a giant hit. I'm kind of happy that my film career didn't take off."

Now a TV staple, Fallon declares that he's developed "a voice that people expect from us."

What is that voice?

"Fun. Nice. Absurd," he says reflectively. A thoughtful pause, then a laugh. "I'm still working on the list."

His key strength as host boils down to his unflagging engagement, says "Tonight Show" producer Josh Lieb.

"He's got genuine empathy for his guests and for the audience," he said. "He's trying to give them the best of himself.

"He is the most inclusive comic I've ever known," adds Lieb, whose credits include "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and the sitcom "NewsRadio." ''Some comics want to shut the audience out. Jimmy really wants to bring the whole world in on the joke."

Fallon is also up for anything, and his guests seem chill about following his lead. Like when he and tough-guy action-film star Jason Statham doused each other with pitchers of water during a card game called Water War.

"I'm not afraid to get wet," says Fallon, chortling at the memory. "I'm not afraid to get messy."

It seems to be paying off. Note that charter "Late Night" host David Letterman held that post for more than a decade before launching "Late Show" (now Fallon's CBS rival at 11:35 p.m.). O'Brien labored 15 long years before his short-lived promotion to "Tonight."

Now, after only a five-year internship, Fallon has graduated to what's repeatedly, momentously, hopefully described as his "last job."

"That's what it SHOULD be," he nods. "It's a great job, and it should be the last job, if you do it right. I'm looking forward to being here a long time!"

Join the discussion

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Melinda February 17 2014 at 9:17 PM

It is unfortunate that the author believes that, in order to celebrate Fallon, we need to denigrate Leno. It is disingenuous to state that the show languished -- for 22 years -- under Leno. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

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sallysunbury Melinda February 17 2014 at 9:27 PM

Yeah, I didn't get why that was even in the article. Leno had the job, and did well for something like 20 years! And the article even states that he topped the ratings over the other late night talk shows. And to say he never got respect? Well, how did he keep the job with top ratings for 20 years then? Obviously the writer of the article has some agenda to put Leno down, but I don't know why.

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Joe sallysunbury February 17 2014 at 10:29 PM

Jay was great then got an announcer who fell alseep during the introductions. Then he started repeating his jokes as if to say, "didn't you get it the first time." Good night Jay.

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Vimala Nowlis February 17 2014 at 5:51 PM

It's a hard act to follow after Jay stayed on top as #1 for his entire 22 years run. But I am sure he can do it because Letterman is no match.

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Benny February 17 2014 at 3:11 PM

Still a Leno fan, NBC exec's are just wrong, kick out a proven host, because he's too OLD..... Too old for what? #1 in his rating, consistent. Watched the Tonight show for many years.....except for the Conan blip..... at least I'll get an early start on bedtime as I'll be one less Tonight show viewer....too Old for their new demographics......hopefully FOX will pick up Leno and begin a new Late Night Show...... I'll tune in for that.

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1 reply
tokobali Benny February 17 2014 at 3:21 PM

And he's a great guy.....his best quality.....actually not all that funny, but he makes the audience feel at home. Like the host, the show is fun to watch.

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ltkell908 February 17 2014 at 12:52 PM

I've been a fan of The Tonight show since the mid-sixties...Conan drove me away for a while...went over to Lettermen...don't really care for him much....was glad to see Leno come back. Now it's you, Jimmy Fallon. I know your aim is probably going to be the younger 40's and below crowd, but remember your time slot. Most of your Late Night group are out partying and doing the town. You'll still have the over 40 group, which includes my 60-70 crowd. Please don't chase us over to Lettermen again. Mr. Carson always had good guests and let them entertertain us more than himself. He also kept the political jokes to a minimum and made fun of both the Republicans and the Democrats equally. Better to stay away from politics as much as possible if you don't want to limit your audience. Good Luck...I'll watch you ...at least for a while. Thank You, A lifer tonight show fan!

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blackcoffeeparty ltkell908 February 17 2014 at 1:07 PM

Come on who is more fun to make jokes about than that bunch of frat brat elitist clowns in Washington?

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Lolly Baby!!!!!! February 17 2014 at 8:28 PM

Back in the 50s my Mom and Sister and I went out to California and we went to the Tonight Show with Steve Allen the Host. When he came out to talk to the audience he talked to my Mom. He gave her a record album and a gift certificate. It was fun . We saw the singers Edie Gorme and Steve Lawrence entertaining on the show . It was sooo neat being there.

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1 reply
sallysunbury Lolly Baby!!!!!! February 17 2014 at 9:30 PM

Thanks for passing along that memory, Lolly Baby, it was fun to nice to hear about that.

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Rhoda February 17 2014 at 2:53 PM

I'll give him a try, I like Letterman though.

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SHARON & ED February 17 2014 at 4:38 PM

We are 66 & 67 and enjoy Jimmy Fallon. My question is does he have a unionized crew? I was impressed when Leno disclosed this on his last show. In our opinion it showed his character!
Ed & Sharon

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redriders134occ February 17 2014 at 3:07 PM

good luck jimmy,They said the beatles were a passing trend and elvis and johnny carson .Giv'em hell

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HYMAN STRUM February 17 2014 at 1:26 PM

Looking forward forTonight! Ithink he's the right guy.

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crober8 February 17 2014 at 4:34 PM

Got a feeling its going to be like watching Saturday Night every nite which by the way has not been funny in years..

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