The new host did a bang-up job – and is pure charm in his Monday night debut

By Tom Gliatto PEOPLE TV Critic
February 18, 2014 01:10 PM
Theo Wargo/Getty

I could be Fallon in love.

Ha, ha. But no, seriously.

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, replacingjolly old Jay Leno and moving the former Late Night host up an hour on the NBC schedule, premiered Monday night, and it was a winner. It was charming.

As it should have been: Fallon, 39, is almost pure charm. He’s boyish, silly, modest, eager – emerging from the set’s tall blue curtain, he bowed his head and for a moment looked like Jiminy Cricket, a small ambassador of good will. And he can dance, sing and do voices just well enough without ever doing them too well, which would make you wonder why he was a talk show host instead of an actor with a sitcom.

The opening show was burdened with the mechanics of making sure everything was sufficiently big, new and heavily stamped with significant faces from show business. A parade of celebrities marched in early on, including Lady Gaga, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey and Kim Kardashian (who also sang on the Leno farewell). U2, so completely draped in the mantle of rock deity one presumes they drop down from the sky and then fly back up, performed “Invisible” on a rooftop before a beautiful Manhattan skyline streaked with the red and yellow of sunset. (Fallon is keeping the show on the East Coast.)

But the host’s personality was never lost in all this: He would resurface like a boy very happy to be buried beneath too many Christmas presents.

A choreographed gag with Will Smith, “The Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing,” was ebulliently stupid. (When Fallon was still with Late Night, he and Michelle Obama famously performed “The Evolution of Mom Dancing.”) There is never, ever anything wrong with stupid ebullience, especially when it energizes a format as predictable as the talk show. I also liked his brief impersonation of a Russian thug – he’s adept at conjuring up a character with just a phrase, and he does it with less manic intensity than Conan O’Brien – and a segment on Olympic athletic “superlative” awards. Skeleton racer Ben Sandford was “most likely to play jazz flute.”

This could be a very, very good run.