While I am not a fan of late-night talk show politics (an especially hot issue these days), I’ve always been a fan of the programming. And my earliest experience on this score was watching The Dick Cavett Show. Now, I’ve got to admit, if I saw a tape of that program today, I would probably be a little put off by the relentlessly bookish tone of the dialogue. But, at the time of my appreciating it – I’m guessing I was ten or so – I loved the repartee between the host and his guests. I just loved it.
I should probably explain (in case it isn’t remarkably obvious) that my parents were always rather lenient regarding my bedtime -- particularly on Fridays and Saturdays. And why shouldn’t they have been? It’s not like I was outside stealing hubcaps or smoking crack. I was inside. I was downstairs. I was watching Dick Cavett, for God’s sake.
But in my junior high years, something changed in me, and that’s when my parents started worrying. That’s when I started watching Johnny Carson. I can’t remember the moment when I switched allegiances, but the lure was strong. Maybe it was the show-biz nature of his program. Maybe it was the lack of outright, intellectual sparring. Maybe it was Johnny’s sexy charm. Regardless of the reason, I had changed teams, and this made my parents curious. One night, my father parlayed that curiosity into joining me for the full ninety minutes of The Tonight Show.
I remember turning to Dad throughout the program, smiling and wondering if he would smile too.
But as he sat there, Dad didn’t emote.
When the show was over, though, he did offer one thought as he stood and walked away. He told me that he really loved Ed McMahon.
Right, Dad, I thought, rolling my eyes.
And just as I knew my father was kidding, I also knew that he was expressing a truth. He didn’t love Ed McMahon. He just envied him. He envied the man who could make such a bankroll simply by laughing at his boss night after night.
Over the years, I continued to watch Johnny (remaining indifferent to Ed). And for many of those years, Johnny was followed by Letterman, whom I also grew to love. Classics, both. Their sardonic, often deadpan approaches defined late-night television for me. The dry delivery, the laid-back take – that was what I had come to expect at the end of my day.
When Johnny left, Dave was still there, so the attitude-torch remained lit. From time to time, I’d check in with Conan or Craig, but I could never embrace their higher registers. I wanted a bass, not a tenor. For me, late-night talk had a formula that worked. Why mess with it?
Enter Jimmy Fallon.
When his show debuted last March, I was curious to see what this SNL alum would do with Conan’s old spot on NBC. So, after Letterman, I switched channels and watched.
During the first week or so, I sensed a discomfort, particularly during the opening monologue. He didn’t seem up to the routine of a typical late-night talk show host. But… I kept watching, and as the weeks and months unfolded, Jimmy Fallon established his own routine.
And now? I am beyond impressed. With less than a year under his talk-show belt, Jimmy Fallon has done something I would never have thought imaginable in all my years of following Dick, Johnny, and Dave. Jimmy Fallon has made late-night talk not just a comic place, but a genuinely happy place.
The minute he steps through those curtains, he is more than comfortable and competent. He is – or seems to be – filled with joy. And that joy then gets spread – to the band (Roots; joyful in their own right); to his announcer, Higgins (Lydia’s non-smoking half); to his studio audience; to his guests; and to folks like me, who are relaxing on couches or in beds across America.
A new concept.
I, for one, have never needed it more.