“The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” fans may have noticed that house band The Roots have a lot less to perform at the start of the nightly program now. The NBC late-night show quietly dropped its opening credits a few months ago, squeezing the cold open down to a quick intro from announcer Steve Higgins, a few “hey-hey-hey-hey” bars from The Roots, and then straight into Fallon’s monologue.
The decision to drop the opener is the most notable change made so far on “The Tonight Show” since former “Today” executive producer Jim Bell took over as showrunner in October. Fallon told Variety that the idea for excising the opener was inspired by Netflix’s “skip intro” feature, which allows viewers to bypass a series episode’s opening credits and get straight into the action.
But it’s also clearly a bid to hold on to more viewers from its local news lead-in as the late-night ratings wars once again heat up. For the 2018-2019 TV season, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” held a commanding lead in total viewers, with 3.82 million (to “The Tonight Show’s” 2.44 million). Both shows are tied in adults 18-49 (0.5 rating). “Late Show” holds a narrow lead over “Tonight” in adults 25-54 (0.8 vs. 0.7), which is also the news demo — so perhaps NBC believes any extra viewers that anything they can gain in transition from local news helps.
“The Tonight Show’s” original opening sequence, directed by Spike Lee, featured Fallon and various New York landmarks, and had been a part of Fallon’s “Tonight” show since its 2014 launch.
The Roots on The Tonight Show
The Roots on The Tonight Show
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 0630 -- Pictured: (l-r) Vocalist Charlie Wilson sits-in with The Roots on February 23, 2017 -- (Photo by: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 0622 -- Pictured: (l-r) Ahmir 'Questlove' Thompson and Tariq ?Black Thought? Trotter of The Roots during wheel of freestyle on February 10, 2017 -- (Photo by: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 0599 -- Pictured: (l-r) Ahmir 'Questlove' Thompson and Tariq ?Black Thought? Trotter of The Roots on January 10, 2017 -- (Photo by: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 0589 -- Pictured: (l-r) Damon 'Tuba Gooding Jr.' Bryson, James 'Kamal' Gray, Dave Guy, Ian Handrickson-Smith, Mark Kelley, James Poyser, Kirk 'Captain Kirk' Douglas, Frank 'Knuckles' Walker, Ahmir 'Questlove' Thompson, and Tariq 'Black Thought' Trotter of The Roots perform on December 12, 2016 -- (Photo by: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 0547 -- Pictured: Singer Olivia Newton-John with The Roots on October 4, 2016 -- (Photo by: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 0535 -- Pictured: Musical guest Miley Cyrus performs with The Roots on September 16, 2016 -- (Photo by: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 0512 -- Pictured: Actor Leslie Odom Jr. performs with The Roots on August 1, 2016 -- (Photo by: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 0519 -- Pictured: James Valentine with The Roots on August 24, 2016 -- (Photo by: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 0463 -- Pictured: Rapper Lecrae performs with The Roots on May 3, 2016 -- (Photo by: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 0459 -- Pictured: Kirk 'Captain Kirk' Douglas of The Roots performs on April 27, 2016 -- (Photo by: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
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“You don’t have [the ‘skip intro’ button] on network TV,” Fallon said. “So you’re forced to watch this, every night. And you go, ‘I get it, Jimmy Fallon’s going to walk out. We get it, you’re in New York City and you’re ordering a hot dog.”
The idea, he said, is simple: “Get to the funny, get to the comedy. [Viewers are] going to tune in at 11:35 and want to see you be funny. ‘Gimme the jokes, what’s happening in the world. Gimme the headlines. What is the president doing? What’s the new pop culture thing people are talking about? Show me a viral video and let’s go! Entertain me, I’m tired. I worked all day! I don’t need to see you walking through New York! I get it!'”
Sacrificed in the change, however, is that catchy “Tonight Show” theme song, which the Roots and Fallon revealed during a 2017 panel at the Paley Center was created out of bumper music the band wrote when they first joined “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” in 2009. Fallon picked that tune out of several choices to become his signature “Tonight Show” theme.
“Literally, the first song we wrote ended up being the ‘Tonight Show’ theme, the ‘Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey’ song, which is weird because when you approached us about coming up with a new ‘Tonight Show’ theme, we did about 20 other compositions,” The Roots’ Questlove told Fallon on the panel.
The intro also included a moment where Questlove would shout the episode number of that night’s “Tonight Show.”
Jimmy Fallon through the years
Jimmy Fallon through the years
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 0289 -- Pictured: Host Jimmy Fallon during the monologue on July 13, 2015 -- (Photo by: Douglas Gorenstein/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES: Show hosts actress Kirsten Dunst (L) and her fiance Jimmy Fallon clown around with a prop at the 2001 MTV Movie Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, 02 June 2001. AFP PHOTO/Lucy Nicholson (Photo credit should read LUCY NICHOLSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Jimmy Fallon and Mary Louise Parker backstage at the MTV Rock & Comedy Concert at Battery Park in New York City, 5/10/02. The concert was staged as part of the first Tribeca Film Festival. Photo by Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect.
Comedian Jimmy Fallon perform at the MTV Tribeca Film Festival Rock and Comedy Concert in Battery Park in New York City. May 10, 2002. Photo by Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect
Jimmy Fallon jokes with and dresses identical to host Carson Daly on TRL at the MTV Studios in New York City. Jimmy will be hosting this years Video Music Awards live from Radio City Music Hall on August 29th. 8/14/02 Photo by Scott Gries/ImageDirect
NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 10: Actors Jimmy Fallon and Maya Rudolph attend attends the Marc Jacobs Fall/Winter 2003 Collection fashion show at the 26th Street Armory during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week February 10, 2003 in New York City. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 23: (HOLLYWOOD REPORTER OUT, U.S. TABS OUT) Jimmy Fallon arrives at the BMG Post-Grammy Gala to celebrate the 45th Annual Grammy Awards at Gotham Hall February 23, 2003. (Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images)
HOUSTON - FEBRUARY 1: Actor Jimmy Fallon poses during the MTV TRL Super Bowl edition at Reliant Park in Houston, Texas, February 1, 2004. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)
CULVER CITY, CA - JUNE 5: (U.S. TABLOIDS OUT) (L-R) Actor Jimmy Fallon and actress/singer Queen Latifah laugh backstage at the 2004 MTV Movie Awards at the Sony Pictures Studios on June 5, 2004 in Culver City, California. The 2004 MTV Movie Awards will air on the MTV Network June 10, 2004 9 PM (ET/PT). (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD - DECEMBER 8: Actor Jimmy Fallon arrives at the Warner Bros. premiere of the film 'Ocean's Twelve' at Grauman's Chinese Theatre December 8, 2004 in Hollywood California. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images)
Actors Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon make an appearance on MTV's Total Request Live on April 5, 2005 in New York City. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images)
Producer Nancy Juvonen (L) and actor Jimmy Fallon arrive for the premier of the film 'Music and Lyrics' in Los Angeles, California, 07 February 2007. (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - JUNE 04: Actor Jimmy Fallon attends Columbia Pictures' screening of 'You Don't Mess With The Zohan' on June 4, 2008 at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City. (Photo by Rob Loud/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 29: Host Jimmy Fallon speaks onstage at the 62nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards held at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on August 29, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 28: TV personality Jimmy Fallon attends the Museum of the Moving Image salute to Alec Baldwin at Cipriani 42nd Street on February 28, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Season: 1 -- Pictured: Host Jimmy Fallon -- (Photo by: James White/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 0001 -- Pictured: Host Jimmy Fallon on February 17, 2014 -- (Photo by: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
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The new protocol also means the night’s guests aren’t immediately announced, until Fallon brings them up later in the monologue.
Soon after the change, one fan started a petition on Change.org to “bring the old ‘Tonight Show’ intro back.” Only 43 people have signed on so far, and a viewer admitted that she misses “the old vibes the old intro had.”
One late night observer noted that the decision to scrap the intro in order to seamlessly move from late local news into Fallon’s monologue is straight out of the NBC playbook. The Peacock network famously launched its internal “NBC 2000” initiative in the late 1990s to cut down opening theme songs, shrink end credits and immediately transition from one show to the next without commercial breaks. The goal was to keep audiences from flipping channels.
“They have an entire department at NBC that goes, ‘what can we do to grab people before they change the channel?” the insider said. “‘What are some possible off ramps for the lead-in audience, and boy if we could just hook them right away from the local news then perhaps we save a tenth of a ratings point.’ That strikes me that that’s what that is.”
Local news remains a solid lead-in for late night shows, and in most top markets, the NBC-owned stations outperform CBS-owned stations in late news, presumably giving “Tonight Show” a bit of an advantage. (ABC stations lead in the top markets.)
Fallon said the change remains an experiment. “We’re trying it, we’re always up for trying new things and we always love any new ideas,” he said. “There are always ways to change things and grow in the right direction and see.”
And indeed, it’s nothing new for late night shows to experiment with changing up the form. NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” eventually began opening its episodes with Meyers sitting at his desk, ready to riff on headlines — rather than the stand up, in front of a curtain, preferred by most hosts. Colbert embraced more political humor, while Conan O’Brien just completely retooled his show, as it went from an hour to half-hour.