Mr. Brightside

If there’s a single objection to Jimmy Fallon, it’s that he’s so darn cheery. But as he prepares to host The Golden Globes, it turns out that it’s not an act at all.

 
Mr. Brightside

Cover star

Photography by Art Streiber

"Hey, how are ya!” 

It’s exactly the kind of breezy, shoulder-thumping greeting you’d expect from Jimmy Fallon, the man behind the desk of NBC’s The Tonight Show since 2014, and serious contender for Friendliest Person on TV. It seems fitting, then, given the current mood in America, that Fallon has been picked to preside over this month’s Golden Globe Awards, following the bad taste blitz from last year’s host, British comedian Ricky Gervais.

Ironically, Fallon’s own recent brush with controversy came about as a result of his knee-jerk affability. This was mid-September last year. The headliner on the show was Donald Trump. Fallon, messing around, tousled the then-candidate’s hair — and what a headline that turned out to be. The gesture was seen by some as a tacit endorsement, and the fallout was loud and sometimes severe. For his part, the 42-year-old Saturday Night Live alum seems to have taken the flap in his stride.

“We’re basically a pop culture show,” he says, speaking from his office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. “Whoever everyone’s talking about, we have on the show. We treat everyone equally and let our audience decide what to think of people. I don’t think I’ll ever let anyone know my political views, because you have both sides watching. It’s a big world out there.”

But there’s more to the matter than formatting. While the U.S. talk show circuit leans heavily toward acerbic, current affairs-based comedy — think The Late Show host Stephen Colbert, or Late Night’s Seth Meyers — this is simply not Fallon’s style. Jimmy is America’s good-time guy. Life got you down? Let’s play some games! Hard day at the office? Let’s turn that frown upside down with a pop song played on a kazoo! 

At a time when entertainment has been pulled deeper into America’s political divide, Fallon is old school, valuing — and excelling in — entertainment as its own virtue. But Fallon’s Tonight Show does not so much reflect a comedic approach as it does a disposition. He is, apparently, a genuinely cheery person.

BORN IN BROOKLYN IN 1974 AND RAISED IN UPSTATE 

New York, Fallon did not come from a show business family — though his mom and dad, he says, were given to doing impressions of Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd’s “Wild and Crazy Guys” from Saturday Night Live.

To hear Fallon’s debut performance, you’d need to root through the memorabilia at his parents’ home, which includes a recording of 2-year-old Jimmy imitating Hollywood greats. “My parents said, ‘Jimmy, do James Cagney.’ I said, ‘You dirty rat,’” he recalls. “They said, ‘Jimmy, do Don Ho.’ I said, ‘Alohhhhh-ha.’ I would open with Cagney, and close with Don Ho.”

Beyond this, Fallon’s earliest comedy memories involve the show that would go on to become a kind of obsession, and that would one day give him his first real brush with fame. “We watched a lot of television growing up, and I remember seeing Saturday Night Live and just thinking to myself, wow.” 

He also started to pick up comedy recordings by the likes of Steve Martin, Rodney Dangerfield and the Smothers Brothers, which helped him broaden his repertoire of impressions. By the time he was 13, his parents were paying him to perform at their parties.  

“They’d give me a dollar or something. They’d go, ‘Jimmy, do Rodney [Dangerfield] for everybody.’ So I grabbed a tie and did an impression of Rodney. I would go, ‘My wife’s cooking is so bad: Since when does toast have bones? She told me to take out the garbage. I said, you cooked it, you take it out. No respect.’ I did four or five jokes, and got a dollar.”

With his earnings, Fallon bought a reel-to-reel recorder at a garage sale. “I was a weird kid,” he says. “I would tape TV shows — this is before VCRs, obviously. I would record Saturday Night Live, just the audio, so I could lip-sync Richard Pryor or Steve Martin’s monologue in my bedroom, and listen to where they were getting the laughs.”

At around the time he graduated high school, Fallon’s mother heard about a contest for impressionists at Bananas, a comedy club in nearby Poughkeepsie. By then, Fallon’s range had extended to Jerry Seinfeld, John Travolta, Pee-wee Herman and Rocky and Bullwinkle. He won the competition (and $500 prize money) with a routine that would serve as the foundation for the first decade of his career.

“I had a troll doll someone had given me as a graduation present, it had a graduation cap,” he says. “I took the cap off and said, ‘I’ll do different celebrities as the spokesperson for these troll dolls.’” With this, he assumes the persona of Welcome Back, Kotter-era John Travolta: “Jeez, who does his hair? Swear to God. Look at these dolls over he-yuh. What do you do with these things?”

At the time, the routine seemed like — and indeed was — an easy way to make a little extra cash. “I go, dude, if I can make $500 in three minutes, what is this?” he says. “So I started working on more of the act. I added more voices and musical impressions as well, because I play guitar. And I would do different troll spokesmen. I had one act.”

He performed in clubs during and after college, and took classes at The Groundlings comedy theater in Los Angeles, which has nurtured several SNL cast members over the years, including Laraine Newman, Phil Hartman and Will Ferrell. His dream, as ever, was to follow in their footsteps. 

“I sent my tape and résumé to this manager in Los Angeles. She saw it and called me, and she said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I want to be on Saturday Night Live.’ She said, ‘No, seriously, what do you want to do? That’s one in a million.’ I said, ‘That’s really all I want to do.’ Any time I ever wished on anything, or cut a birthday cake, I wished to be on Saturday Night Live.”

IN 1998, FALLON FINALLY LANDED AN AUDITION FOR SNL,
 
at the Comic Strip club in New York. By then, he had been performing his troll spokesman act for years, so he decided to go with that. It worked well for him on the comedy circuit, but less so at his audition. 

“I totally bombed,” he says. “It turned out they were looking for a different type. Tracy Morgan got hired that year. Tracy and I are always up for the same roles.”  

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Within months, he was given another chance to audition for the show — this time on a stage at Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center, home of Saturday Night Live. He was expressly told to leave the trolls behind. “I’m like, OK, that’s my whole act from my whole life. I don’t have anything else. So I came up with a different premise. I did a walkathon, a charity where different celebrities are walking for a cause.”

His impressions that night included Jerry Seinfeld, Gilbert Gottfried and Adam Sandler — the one Fallon believes sealed the deal. “That’s when it cracked,” he says, “because people warn you that [SNL creator] Lorne Michaels won’t laugh at you. They go, ‘He doesn’t laugh. He’s seen everything. Don’t worry.’ When I started doing Sandler, I saw Lorne Michaels laughing, and that was it. I thought, even if I don’t get Saturday Night Live, this is a story I’ll tell my kids forever.”

Fallon made his debut on the show in September 1998, and quickly won over fans with his parodies of popular songs (his victims included Alanis Morissette and Counting Crows) as well as celebrity impressions and original characters like Boston guy Sully and spaced-out webcast host Jarret. Things took a turn several seasons in, when Michaels offered him the Weekend Update anchor slot. This was a popular feature, and it represented a big opportunity for Fallon — but he was apprehensive. 

“I didn’t want to do Weekend Update,” he says. “Lorne was like, ‘Jimmy, I think you’ll be great. You should just do it.’ And I go, ‘I can’t, Lorne. I don’t know anything about the news.’” Fallon eventually succumbed, with the provision that he had a co-anchor — who turned out to be a relative unknown: SNL writer Tina Fey.

Fallon and Fey’s rapport was immediate — Michaels has described their relationship as “a brother-sister type thing.” Beside revitalizing the segment, Fallon’s performance also alerted Michaels, a producer of several talk shows, to the fact that his jokey warmth could work in that environment.

Having achieved his childhood dream, Fallon left SNL in 2004. A hoped-for movie career failed to materialize, but Michaels kept him in mind for the role of talk-show host. When Conan O’Brien swapped Late Night for The Tonight Show in 2009, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon was born. The show ran in the 12:35 a.m. slot, garnering immediate attention by focusing on a young, tech-savvy audience.

The new show had a strong focus on music, along with the introduction of his popular “Thank You Notes” segment, and games such as “Wheel of Carpet Samples” and “Hot Dog in a Hole.” It was a ratings success, generally beating the numbers of both his predecessor O’Brien and Craig Ferguson, his direct competitor on CBS. 

Fallon went on to make his Tonight Show debut in February, 2014, and continued his whimsical approach there. He also put his own distinct mark on the show by moving it from its longtime home in Los Angeles back to New York, where it was hosted from its 1954 debut until Johnny Carson moved it to Burbank in 1972.

“I’m from New York. I’m very New York-centric,” Fallon says. “We did Late Night from New York, and Saturday Night Live was in this building. I’m just more comfortable in this building. I’ve been coming here for 15 years. My whole career has been at NBC. If I moved to Los Angeles, I don’t know what the show would be like, or what I would be like. I think I just make more sense here. It’s almost like, when people come in, they come to my house.”

The Golden Globe Awards, held on January 8 at The Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, will take Fallon away from home again. But he seems determined to at least stick with familiar material during the show — which, as ever, will stress the playful over the satirical.  

“What we’ll probably do is focus on how much fun the show is, and that it’s the first big show of 2017,” says Fallon. “People just need something to laugh at and be entertained by. I think that’s my job, and hopefully that’s what we’ll do.”

Otherwise, Fallon is heavily focused on developing his role as Tonight Show host, which, as Jerry Seinfeld once reminded him, is a “Pope job” — a job for life. And this, says Fallon, is fine with him. 



“I’ll do this for as long as people are interested,” he says. “I love making people laugh and making people happy.” 

A lot has changed since little Jimmy entertained his parents in mid-1970s New York, but not the underlying inclinations in his comedy. These days, Fallon doesn’t open with Cagney and close with Don Ho. And yet, if you pay very close attention to his routines, you’ll hear an “Alohhhhh-ha!” in there somewhere. 

The Golden Globes, hosted by Jimmy Fallon, are on Jan. 8. Check out video clips from The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on our NBCUniversal channel on flights with mainscreen entertainment