Earlier this week, NBC Tonight Show host Jay Leno and Late Night host Jimmy Fallon engaged in a charming little skit – a duet of “Tonight” from West Side Story, with novelty lyrics that reflected the growing media speculation (bordering on certainty) that Leno would soon be forced to give his spot to Fallon.
Tonight, Tonight, why do they say we fight?
I like you, you like me, we’re okay!
Tonight, Tonight, who cares who hosts Tonight?
People just watch online the next day
The unstated irony of this little song is that, at least in West Side Story, one of those singers ends up dead. Now we know which one.
Well, actually, Leno is very much alive, but – after a few nights that saw his ratings rise, partly due to his irritated jabs at NBC – the Tonight throne will now be inherited by Fallon, 38.
Reports have speculated this is the fallout of ABC’s decision to position 45-year-old Jimmy Kimmel as a sort of 11:30 p.m. youth wedge between Leno and The Late Show‘s David Letterman (on CBS).
Kimmel doesn’t strike me as having an especially youthful temperament, but up against Leno, 62, and Letterman, 65, he’s like Taylor Lautner vs. Sean Connery vs. Clint Eastwood.
Of course, you may have other rugged action stars you prefer.
This is arguably part of a larger generational shift that can be seen playing out on The View, with 83-year-old lioness Barbara Walters staring down the camera and saying she will announce her retirement when she is good and ready and not before, and possibly even in the decline of Matt Lauer’s Today vs. the Spring Break party going on over at Good Morning America.
These controversies are all stirred up in the media with intense whispering campaigns, even as such money-generating formats are being diluted (as the Leno-Fallon duet acknowledges) by YouTube, Hulu and other digital platforms.
Within in a few years, you will probably be able to download Fallon into a Starbucks caramel macchiato.
By the way, our current president, who is 51, has “slow-jammed” the news with Fallon. Michelle Obama has "mom-danced" with him. It would only be expected that network executives, to quote a poet, “hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” Need to hop on.
Will a Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon play out any better than the 8-month Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien? That experiment began in 2009, you’ll recall, with Leno moved into prime time with his own show. That reduced O’Brien to being a pope having to suffer an anti-pope as his opening act. It did not go well, especially when NBC decided to relocate Leno to 11:35 p.m.
Leno ultimately got back Tonight, and O’Brien – a radically different, far more original comedian – wound up on TBS. (His contract there was just extended through November 2014.)
Fallon does have an advantage over O’Brien – at least if you adhere to the adage that viewers don’t want to be challenged, made nervous or stuck with any image other than Leno’s comforting helmet of white hair flickering beneath their eyelids in the moments before sleep. Fallon doesn’t have O’Brien’s edge. Literally – he looks as if he were created from a sub-molecular blend of all the male leads on How I Met Your Mother.
O’Brien is more like a Swiss Army knife: You can’t be certain there’s not some hidden blade. But both, with their Saturday Night Live backgrounds, understand how to create something that comes close to a full-fledged skit, something that could air on SNL or be posted on Funny or Die. (Kimmel knows that too.)
This skill matters far more than the opening monologue – the least funny tradition in talk-show format – and Fallon’s bits are brilliant, from his Downton Abbey takeoff to the bizarre “Fake Arms” skit.
And he can act. He can sing. He can interview. He smiles in a way that could convince a wolf to relinquish a sheep from its jaws. Most of it, anyway.
It’s his time.