“Welcome to 11:30, bitch!” — Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” era begins

Jeff Pfeiffer

There were a few things during the premiere of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon that made it clear this wasn’t necessarily going to be your grandfather’s Tonight Show, or perhaps even your father’s. The “TV14-L” rating in the upper corner, for one, and that came into play at least once with a slang use of the word “bitch” — certainly nothing unusual for most late-night programs, or even primetime shows, but perhaps uncommon during the Tonight Show stints of Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. There was another point where, during a comedy segment, Jimmy Fallon hilariously described Olympic figure skater David King as looking like a “Lesbian Screech” (the “Screech” part is a Saved By the Bell reference, for those who were past watching teen TV in the ’90s), a joke that may not have made the cut on previous Tonight Show incarnations.

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But at the same time, there were moments that also made it clear that this could be akin to your father’s or grandfather’s Tonight Show. Fallon humbly began the night thanking all the hosts who came before him (after joking that, “I’ll be your host … for now”). He also had his parents in the audience cheering him on (with his dad even sometimes trying to upstage his son by shouting out comments from the peanut gallery). Fallon’s interviews with guests Will Smith and U2 even seemed a bit retro, with all the guests hanging out on the couch and interacting with each other. (Fallon is still one of the lightest late-night interviewers, however. It remains to be seen if he will ever get more in-depth with the chats, or keep them at a “pals hanging out” level.)

And, of course, the show is back in New York City, which your grandfather’s, and perhaps your father’s, Tonight Show was. A model of the city served as a backdrop for Fallon’s set, but the real cityscape was in full evidence during musical guest U2’s first, pre-taped performance — the band rocked their song “Invisible” outside, atop Rockefeller Center, surrounded by a crowd of fans, and jamming as a lovely sunset fell on the Big Apple. U2 also later performed an acoustic version of their Oscar-nominated song “Ordinary Love,” eventually being joined by Fallon’s house band The Roots, which he brought with him from Late Night.

Also New York-centric was the show’s opening, showing Fallon in a variety of noted spots around the city. During the show, Fallon mentioned that they were looking for a New York filmmaker to shoot this sequence and capture the feel of the city. They approached Spike Lee, who accepted right away. Fallon expressed gratitude at having his show’s opening sequence be a “Spike Lee Joint.”

At times, such as during his interviews and his opening thanks, Fallon displayed some of the nervousness (real or otherwise) and quiet humility of Johnny Carson, but then also brought some of what made him such a fan-favorite as host of Late Night, including that off-set performance by U2, and a video that will surely, if it hasn’t already, gone viral — “The Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing.” The funny segment featured Fallon and Will Smith going through various dances from over the decades, from the Running Man and Robot up through the Twerk (Fallon later said during his interview with Smith that he was out of breath nearly the whole time). In addition to being very funny, it displayed Fallon’s ability for physical, and musical, comedy (and musical talent in general).

Along with the humility, coupled with the cutting-edge stuff, Fallon also managed to walk the tightrope of being a good employee for NBC, helping develop synergy for the network’s Olympics coverage by making the Winter Games a big part of his opening monologue and first comedy segment, bringing up the Olympics during his chat with Smith, and ending the show with a reminder for people to stay tuned for more Olympics coverage.

So Fallon balanced the entertainment, personal and business elements that have come with being the new host of The Tonight Show, and he did it well enough. But before he even got settled in, there was a very funny sequence in which he was reminded, in a tongue-in-cheek way, to stay grounded. When Fallon first sat at his desk after the monologue, he recalled a friend telling him that he would never become host of The Tonight Show. “You owe me $100, buddy,” Fallon laughed. Right after that, Robert De Niro popped out from behind the stage and plunked a hundred-dollar bill on Fallon’s desk.

And that was only the beginning. A seemingly never-ending parade of celebrities followed suit, coming out from behind stage and paying up for Fallon, most seeming to (jokingly) be disappointed at having to do so. Along with De Niro, there came Tina Fey, Joan Rivers (who was infamously banned from The Tonight Show by Carson in 1986), Mike Tyson (I kinda do and don’t want to know what was in the envelope Tyson slipped Fallon along with the cash, and which Fallon nervously tucked away), Lady Gaga, Seth Rogen, Mariah Carey, Rudy Giuliani (the former NYC mayor thanked Fallon for bringing the show back to the city), Sarah Jessica Parker, Joe Namath, Tracy Morgan, Kim Kardashian, Lindsay Lohan and Stephen Colbert.

Colbert was the last, and funniest guest appearance during this segment. Paying up his $100 all in pennies (dumping a bucket of them on Fallon’s desk, and on Fallon himself), Colbert — who will be a time slot rival of Fallon’s with his own show — took a quick selfie with Fallon, then sarcastically shouted, “Welcome to 11:30, bitch!” before walking off, to much audience applause and laughter.

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Welcome, indeed. It may not be able to sustain this level of celebrity firepower on a consistent basis to serve as backup, but the first installment of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon had enough different and interesting elements that, if maintained, could prove to be an enjoyable Tonight Show for you, your father and your grandfather.

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The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon photos: Lloyd Bishop/NBC