When Jay Leno stepped down in 2014 as the permanent host of “The Tonight Show,” chubby-cheeked Jimmy Fallon seemed like the perfect candidate to fill his chair behind the iconic desk that was once home to the legendary Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, and Steve Allen.
“The Tonight Show” is the world’s longest-running talk show and regularly-scheduled entertainment program in the U.S. It offers a comfortable haven where Mom and Pop can unwind before heading to bed. “The Tonight Show” can be counted on to provide a laugh and A-list celebrity appearances.
Tonight Viewers Want Comfort
“The Tonight Show” audience isn’t interested in Stephen Colbert’s intellect or Conan O’Brien’s edginess. O’Brien did take over as host for a brief stint in 2010. He attracted a younger audience, but overall, ratings dived during his ramp-up, and, in the end, Leno returned as host.
Tonight Show regulars seek a safe haven without social issues rammed down their throats. When Leno determined to retire, Fallon appeared to be the perfect choice to satisfy this fan base. While Fallon lacks Johnny Carson’s midwestern charm, he has a strong desire to please.
Letterman Leaves in a Huff – Fallon Steps In
Fallon made his mark in the talk show circuit by replacing David Letterman on “Late Night” in 2010. Letterman had left NBC in a huff after O’Brien was selected to replace Leno in the Tonight chair. Fallon added more music and social media to the “Late Night” format.
His hip-hop/neo-blues group, The Roots, as the house band was an inspired choice. The Roots stayed with Fallon when he moved to “The Tonight Show” – another break from the traditional big band format of Skitch Henderson and Doc Severinsen that dominated the show’s early years.
Fallon Pioneers Social Media on TV
“Late Night” typically opened with a brief monologue from Fallon, followed by a comedy “desk piece,” as well as pre-recorded segments and audience competitions. The next segment was devoted to a celebrity interview, with guests ranging from actors and musicians to media personalities and political figures.
The show then closed with either a musical or comedy performance or a cooking segment. “Late Night” frequently inserted digital media into its comedy, which became crucial to its success. The show created a huge online presence for itself. Many of its popular segments, celebrity sketches, and musical performances became viral hits.
Fallon Succeeds Leno as Tonight Host
Fallon replaced Leno in February 2014. His initial guests included Will Smith and the rock band U2 and appearances by one of Fallon’s direct broadcast competitors and former permanent guest host Joan Rivers. She made her first appearance on “Tonight” since cutting ties with Carson in 1986.
Filmmaker Spike Lee directed the show’s opening sequence. As part of the transition to Fallon, “The Tonight Show” was brought back to New York City after 42 years in Southern California. Approximately $5 million was budgeted to renovate , where Fallon recorded “.”
SNL Producer Michaels Joins the Tonight Team
Studio 6B was also the site of the and -hosted versions of “The Tonight Show” before it moved to Burbank in 1972. “Saturday Night Live” producer joined the team in New York as executive producer, a happy reunion for Fallon.
Fallon spent six years (1998-2004) on “Saturday Night Live,” and 20 years later, a skit he performed on the show came back to bite him. In February 2019, comedian Nick Cannon took to Instagram to slam several white comedians for donning blackface. The post included Fallon, who wore it on “Saturday Night Live” during a Chris Rock impersonation.
Fallon Scandalizes Twitter-verse in Blackface
The post resurfaced in 2020 and sparked an instant outrage. Calling the images racist, users flocked to Twitter to call the comedian “canceled” by launching the viral hashtag #JimmyFallonIsOverParty. Oddly, Rock defended Fallon, telling the NY Times that he realized Fallon didn’t mean to hurt him.
Rock added that he and Fallon are friends and that intention is important. He said the gesture didn’t hurt him and that Fallon meant no harm. He clarified that white actors wearing blackface is not acceptable.
Blackface Fallout Gives Fallon Black Eye
Fallon tweeted an apology. He wrote, “In 2000, while on SNL, I made a terrible decision to do an impersonation of Chris Rock while in blackface. There is no excuse for this. I am very sorry for making this unquestionably offensive decision and thank all of you for holding me accountable.”
African American comedian Wyatt Cenac, who had been an intern on SNL, told the NY Times that it wasn’t his job to absolve Fallon, but he pointed out that Fallon didn’t create the offensive skit himself – he just performed the script he was handed.
Fallon Opens Show with Serious Race Discussion
The controversy pushed Fallon, who typically avoids controversial political and social issues on his show, to discuss race and violence by the police against African Americans on the show. It was a stretch for an entertainer who preferred to keep the mood light.
Fallon’s reluctance to hold a politician’s feet to the fire made him a figure of ridicule during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Following an appearance by then-candidate Donald Trump, Fallon was criticized by some media critics and viewers on social media for the uncontroversial questions he asked Trump.
The Trump “Hair Show” Fuels the Fire
Writing in The Atlantic, David Sims called the interview an “embarrassment.” Fallon responded that it was his policy to never be too hard on anyone. He added he would be hosting Hillary Clinton the following week and would “do something fun” with her.
The most peculiar part of the interview was Fallon’s request to “mess up” Trump’s hair. This infuriated many of his viewers. Fans believed that Fallon tussling Trump’s hair was an attempt to humanize the candidate. The show’s rating tumbled, and Fallon was snubbed out of the Emmys.
Fallon’s Apology Enrages Trump
After the election, Fallon apologized for the interview, adding he did not support any of Trump’s political positions. The apology enraged Trump, who tweeted, “@jimmyfallon is now whimpering to all that he did the famous ‘hair show’ with me. Be a man Jimmy!”
You’d think that Fallon would just avoid the Trump topic after this fiasco, but as recently as last year, Fallon brought him up again in a really bizarre context: the Kentucky Derby scandal. Horses and the ex-president really don’t seem to go together, do they?
Losing the Race for the Races
For those with short memories, Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for a steroid after winning the Race for the Roses. Trainer Bob Baffert claims he did nothing wrong and inexplicably blamed the positive test on “cancel culture.” It was a sad day for racing fans, but that didn’t stop Fallon.
Fallon wasted no time digging in with jokes. “When he heard that, the horse said, ‘Hey, you said the needle was the third Pfizer vaccine,’” Fallon joked. “I think the real giveaway is when he ran the race on two legs [with] the jockey on his shoulders.”
Who Insults a Horse?
He unleashed a string of one-liners ill-suited to his “just want to have fun” image: “Right now, the horse is thinking, ‘As long as I am being put out to stud, this sounds more like a you problem. His racing days may be over, but on the bright side, he just joined the Russian gymnastics team.’”
The late-night host then mocked Trump for defending the horse and Baffert. Trump had released a statement saying that calling the horse a “junky” is another reason the world laughs at America, which was just as bizarre as Fallon’s jokes.
Is Fallon a “Superfunctioning” Alcoholic?
Could heavy drinking be the cause of Fallon’s erratic behavior? In 2016, NBC reportedly warned Fallon that his drinking was out of control and ordered him to cut back on the booze. Fallon’s “Saturday Night Live” co-star, Horatio Sanz, said that he and his buddy were “superfunctioning alcoholics.”
Sanz claimed that during their SNL stint, substance abuse was the only way to withstand the pressure of doing a live show every week. Sanz probably did not mean to show disrespect to his friend, but as Fallon has climbed to a higher media perch, the charges linger.
Others Call Out Fallon’s Drinking
However, Fallon’s alleged drinking exploits aren’t just stories told by his friends and former castmates. A Manhattan bartender recalled a time in 2009 that Fallon came to the Whiskey River and partied until 5:30 the next morning. ”
Fallon denied any alcohol problem, insisting that it would be impossible for him to continue to do a show every day if he were drinking all night. Does he protest too much? It may pay to examine some recent Fallon missteps that could be connected to booze as much as anything else.
Fallon’s History of Bar Fights
In 2014, Fallon narrowly escaped a bar brawl in the East Village while partying with friends after a show. Someone at the bar reported that Fallon was not the aggressor, but he was caught up in it. It was broken up, and Fallon and his friends left immediately.
Sanz has bragged about fights he and Fallon have gotten into, adding he has seen Fallon “clock a few people.” One time, Sanz said, Fallon supposedly poured beer on someone’s hat, thinking it belonged to Sanz’s friend. It didn’t. The guy confronted Fallon, and Sanz noted that “Jimmy just punched him.”
Injuries Add to Drunk Image
Drinking may also explain Fallon’s mysterious injuries. He reportedly severed a finger at home in June 2015. “I tripped and fell in my kitchen on a braided rug that my wife loves, and I can’t wait to burn it to the ground,” he told audiences on the night he returned to work.
“My ring got caught on the countertop when I was going down and stuck there and pulled my finger off.” Fallon posted a Twitter photo of his bandaged hand, quipping “#drugged” and “#blessed.” The injury landed him in the ICU for 10 days and required six hours of surgery.
Fallon Seems to Be More Than a Regular Klutz
In October 2015, he cut his hand on a bottle of Jägermeister following a Harvard Lampoon award presentation in Boston. A video shows the “Tonight Show” host making his way through the crowd and suddenly tripping — crashing to the ground with a bottle of Jägermeister in his hands.
He reportedly got up and asked for another Jäg. But enough blood flowed to require a trip to the ER. Between the two incidents, Fallon chipped a tooth trying to open a jar of scar tissue gel for his hand. Is he just a common klutz, or is something else going on here?
Photoshopping His Image
In 2015, Sam Jones photographed Fallon and fellow late-night TV hosts for a Vanity Fair photo op titled “Host-to-Host Sensation.” In the pic, ten hosts are gathered, dressed in suits with a drink in hand. The photo included Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Trever Noah, and Fallon. Only Fallon is empty-handed.
Jones later remarked he wasn’t sure if all the hosts knew in advance that there would be drinks involved. He shot a few different angles and said Fallon refused the drink in the end. Was that a way to cover up Fallon’s drinking antics beneath a squeaky-clean photoshoot?
Cardi B Gets an “F” from Fallon
Fallon’s failure to connect with many of his guests has been even more puzzling. Cardi B, for example, is known for her over-the-top demeanor and trademark catchphrases, catchy beats, and lyrical flow. You’d think that Fallon would have known what to expect when he invited her on.
Equipped with all her signature sounds and quick-witted jokes, the rapper came out in full Cardi B mode. But, it looked like Fallon didn’t quite know how to handle her unique style and energy, which made for an interview that left some fans cringing.
The Sounds of Silence on Set
The artist began with her customary noises at the segment started. Fallon ignored them at first. After he asked Cardi B about her NYC upbringing, she responded with her signature “Aerotow” sound, leaving Fallon to simply sit in silence before taking a sip of water.
As the interview progressed, he appeared to fall into more of a hilarious groove with the rapper, but the whole thing came off as pretty uncomfortable and, as one Twitter user put it, “So entertaining for Cardi, but awkward for Jimmy.” Not a night for the books.
Fallon “Fires” Davidson
In 2018, “Saturday Night Live” star Pete Davidson made his “Tonight Show” debut to chat about his engagement to then-fiancée Ariana Grande. The interview started off easily enough, with the comedian gushing about the couple. Things started to fall apart when Fallon suggested that the late-night show would be a perfect wedding venue.
Davidson shot back with, “Why do people care? It’s very weird. It’s weird ’cause like the president’s like trying to pardon himself, and he’s like f**king a porn star.” This, of course, was in reference to Donald Trump’s alleged affair with Stormy Daniels.
It’s Not a Blue World on TV
There was some nervous laughter from the audience while Fallon himself laughed it off but looked uncomfortable. Undeterred, Davidson continued his X-rated language throughout the interview. Finally, the host told Davidson that he couldn’t say those words on live television and jokingly “fired” him from the show.
“No, it’s fine, I’ll go on Seth [Meyers’ show], I don’t give a s**t … I actually have Seth’s number, I don’t have your number,” Davidson quipped. To which Fallon quickly retorted, “And you’re never gonna get it either.” The entire exchange was met with shocked howls from the in-studio crowd.
Hosting the Competition is Bumpy
Fallon was somewhat uncomfortable hosting late-night rival John Oliver in 2018. The “Last Week Tonight” host played it up after Fallon asked about his role of Zazu in the live-action remake of “The Lion King.” “I’m a movie star,” Oliver jokingly said, adding, “You respect me, Jimmy. I’m a movie star now!”
So, Fallon pivoted to Oliver’s award-winning HBO show, noting it’s “the best title of any show ever.” Oliver quipped, “The best title? Wow, that sounds like damning me with fake praise, Jimmy. ‘I really love the title; it goes downhill once that’s finished.'” Both cracked up as Oliver admitted the title was dumb.
Making Blake Skelton Roar Back
Fallon managed to get Blake Shelton’s back-up by heckling the laid-back country crooner about the cover of his eleventh studio album, “Texoma Shore,” in a 2017 appearance. Fallon quizzed Shelton about what he was thinking when they shot the cover photo of Shelton standing by a river.
Shelton tried to keep things amicable as the audience laughed and replied he was thinking about wishing he was there. However, Fallon didn’t take the hint to move on and began a bit about Shelton’s upbringing, imitating Southern accents and stereotypes. After a couple more minutes of banter, Shelton had enough and demanded that Fallon interview him.
Ricky Gervais Lets Loose
Ricky Gervais admits he has no filter. He told the New York Times he believes nothing is sacred, and the heart of comedy is laughing at the wrong thing because you know what the right thing is. So, it wasn’t surprising that the British entertainer latched on to Fallon’s penchant for giving out seemingly fake compliments.
During Gervais’ 2017 appearance on the late-night show, Fallon opened by telling the British comedian that he “looks great,” which was enough to send his guest into a long-winded rant about his appearance. “I look great? Is that sarcasm?” the stand-up comic rhetorically asked.
Martin and Short Roast Fallon to Well Done
Comic legends Steve Martin and Martin Short aren’t just longtime showbiz besties, they’re also utterly hilarious together. When they appeared together on “The Tonight Show” in 2019, they used the opportunity to rip into Fallon, turning the interview into more of a Comedy Central Roast than a casual late-night appearance.
They spiked their appearance with rapid-fire jokes aimed at the talk show host’s alleged fakeness. “This is the greatest show on television because there is no host in late night that pretends to care the way you do,” Short began. Fallon laughed along and thanked his guest.
Duo Perform Riff on Fallon Phoniness
Short kept going. “I mean, no one captures phoniness the way you do, it’s a gift.” Without skipping a beat, Martin jumped in saying, “When I’m home, you know, watching the show — which is rare … I’m thinking, ‘Wow, for somebody who does meth, your teeth look great!'”
As the kicker, Short declared, “You prove that tall, handsome white men can make it in show business.” While Fallon initially laughed it off, he grew noticeably quieter near the end of the impromptu roast before moving on with the interview. Did the iconic comedy duo strike a nerve?
Mendes Dubs Him “Grandad”
Singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes had two pretty uncomfortable appearances on “The Tonight Show.” In 2016, Mendes went on to support Fallon’s #FallSongs bit. As Mendes finished the second song, he dissed Fallon for giving him a late cue to begin singing before making a number of jokes about the host’s age.
While the audience laughed at the first quip, they grew restless as the youngster continued to hit Fallon with similar verbal blows. “You sound like my grandfather,” Mendes later told Fallon. The remark fell flat on Fallon and his audience of fans. Cringe.
Mendes Returns for Take 2
Oddly, Mendes returned to the show two years later. He regaled Fallon about performing with Justin Timberlake at the 2018 iHeartRadio Music Festival. The comic shares a very public BFF bromance with the pop star. Fallon jokingly heckled his guest over who Timberlake likes more.
Mendes gushed that he and Timberlake are “pretty good friends now.” But the banter continued throughout the interview, and things progressively got a bit more awkward. Fallon’s final go-to move to squash the playful beef? That infamous over-the-top laugh. Not a great moment on television.
Fallon Considered the Priesthood
Maybe late-night TV isn’t really the place for Fallon. The comedian was born in Brooklyn’s Bar Ridge neighborhood in 1974. Fallon attended the Roman Catholic school St. Mary of the Snow. He considered becoming a priest but became more interested in comedy instead. Still, he remains a committed Catholic.
He spent many nights listening to the radio program “The Dr. Demento Show,” which exposed him to both comedy and music. In a 2015 interview with Vanity Fair magazine, Fallon recalled often recording the show on an old-fashioned reel-to-reel recorder.
Obsessed with “Saturday Night Live”
As a teen, Fallon developed an obsession with his future TV home, “Saturday Night Live.” He watched it religiously, although he was only allowed to see “the clean parts” that his parents taped for him. He and his sister Gloria would re-enact sketches like “The Festrunk Brothers” with friends.
In his teens, he amused his parents with impersonations. He started playing guitar at age 13, going on to perform comedy and music in contests and shows. By his junior high years, he was labeled a class clown but was also described as “nice and well-mannered” – an image he has cultivated.
Fallon Imitation of Pee Wee Wins Prize
At Saugerties High School, Fallon performed in most student productions and was twice a class social director. He won a young comedian’s contest with his impression of Pee Wee Herman. He graduated in 1992 and then attended The College of Saint Rose in Albany, but he preferred to perform stand-up in local clubs.
Instead of studying, he would board the bus to New York to perform at Caroline’s Comedy Club in Times Square. Fallon left just short of receiving a degree. Fourteen years later, he was awarded a B.A. in communications after being granted experiential learning credits for his television work.
Fallon Pursues SNL Dream
In 1995, Fallon headed for LA to pursue his longtime goal of joining SNL. He auditioned for the program in 1997 but was unsuccessful. When he was cast in a pilot for “The WB,” Fallon made sure to include a clause in his contract specifying that if he were to join SNL, he would be released.
He nabbed a second audition a year later. He feared being outshined by the comic before him, who came armed with an arsenal of props. But Fallon performed a “celebrity walk-a-thon” with impressions of Jerry Seinfield, Chris Rock, Bill Cosby, and Adam Sandler, who had just left SNL.
Fallon Promises to Make Lorne Michaels Proud
Fallon rushed through his original characters in order to arrive at his musical impressions, which he felt were stronger. Three weeks passed before Michaels informed him that they wanted him for the show. Walking on air, Fallon told Michaels he would make him proud.
Fallon’s debut as a featured player began the show’s 24th season in September 1998. By his fourth episode, he became a star when he performed his Sandler impression along with Halloween-themed versions of songs by popular artists. Fallon became a celebrity, and his largely female fan base considered him charming.
Promoted to Repertory Player in Season 2
Fallon became the program’s most featured mimic and also created many original characters, including Nick Burns, an IT support nerd; Pat “Sully” Sullivan, one of the Boston Teens with Rachel Dratch; and in Jarret’s Room, a fictional webcast hosted by college students Jarret (Fallon) and Gobi (Horatio Sanz).
Fallon was promoted to repertory player in his second season. He became known for his tendency to break character in sketches, which both he and Michaels disliked. It began in the famous “More cowbell” sketch, when Will Ferrell wore a tighter shirt than expected, causing Fallon to crack up.
Fallon Breaks Character, Annoys Rest of Cast
Following this, other cast members would intentionally try to get Fallon to break. Other cast members believed he was attempting to Dratch and make the sketches about himself. The joke became near-constant during Fallon’s final year on the show. Although he had planned to spend three years on the show, it stretched to six.
Fallon parlayed his SNL success into co-hosting the 2001 “MTV Movie Awards” and 2002 MTV “Video Music Awards.” He recorded his debut comedy album, “The Bathroom Wall” (2002), which was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album. People Magazine named him one of the “50 Most Beautiful People in 2002.”
Off to the Movies
Fallon told People he found the honor “embarrassing.” But he was on his way to what he hoped would be a successful movie career at that point. He was happy to have the recognition as he launched the next phase of his career.
Fallon did not have the same success on the big screen as other SNL alums. He signed on for his first lead role in “Taxi,” a remake of a French film. Fallon had read the script previously but became more interested when Queen Latifah became attached to the project.
Lucky at Love
Perhaps the highlight of his lackluster movie career was meeting his wife, producer Nancy Juvonen, during the production of “Fever Pitch.” The couple has two daughters, Winnie and Frances Cole, and a female English cream Golden Retriever named Gary Frick that has appeared on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”
The couple lives in a Sagaponack, N.Y., farmhouse that has become the substitute studio of “The Tonight Show” since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Fallon has written several children’s books, including “Your Baby’s First Word Will be Dada.”
Fallon as a Writer and Dad
In 2020, Fallon partnered with pacifier company WubbaNub to create two limited-edition pacifiers based on the penguin and cow characters from his children’s books. He has also written several children’s books, including “The Serious Goose,” “How to Babysit a Grandma,” and “Nana Loves You More.”
In 1999, Fallon and his sister, Gloria, wrote a book based on email exchanges, “I Hate This Place, A Pessimists Guide to Life.” Since that time, he has put together email collections for publication. This is a “Tonight Show” tradition. Jack Paar wrote several humorous collections.
Flack for Discussing NFTs
One of Fallon’s off-screen business interests involved NFTs (non-fungible tokens), a unit of storage in a blockchain. In January 2022, Fallon received backlash for discussing NFTs (and promoting one of his own NFTs) on his show during an interview with Paris Hilton.
The discussion may have breached conflict of interest policies set by NBC Universal’s parent company, Comcast. Talk show hosts are contractually banned from hawking their own products on their shows, all of which have paying sponsors who pay for the air time.
Keeping Business and Personal Separate
So, Fallon could not go on the show and promote his line of pacifiers or his children’s books because he is the star of the show and paid by the sponsors. Guest stars, on the other hand, are invited to promote their movies and books on the show and are invited for that reason.
Although his own NFT was most likely purchased in November 2021 for approximately $216,000, some felt by promoting it on the show, Fallon could potentially boost its asking price if he decided to sell it. NBC stated that it did not believe Fallon had broken its conflict of interest rules.
Impact of COVID
Fallon moved “The Tonight Show” to his home in Sagaponack, N.Y., at the start of the pandemic, which has changed the tenor of the show and humanized the host as he has moved to more casual dress and introduced his dog, Gary Frick, to audiences.
Despite his relative isolation, on January 4, 2022, Fallon announced via Instagram that he had tested positive for COVID-19 over the holiday season. He thanked medical professionals and credited the COVID-19 vaccine with making him “lucky enough to only have mild symptoms.”
Challenges of Broadcasting in a Pandemic
Fallon and his new showrunner, Gavin Purcell, told the NY Times it has become easier to try out new concepts in their stripped-down format, whether thinking up original ways to feature the members of the Roots or creating socially distanced segments for celebrity guests.
For example, they launched a TikTok dance contest with Jennifer Lopez. Fallon credits his at-home productivity in large part to Juvonen, a veteran film and TV producer. She is the unseen hand in the segments produced around their house, holding the camera phone and helping to guide her husband’s performances.