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Review: Jimmy Fallon's first night

March 3, 2009 | 10:32 am

NBC's remaking of late-night network television began Monday night with Jimmy Fallon'sFallon assumption of the chair formerly occupied by Conan O'Brien, who is preparing to occupy the chair soon to be formerly occupied by Jay Leno, who is moving down into prime time. Such passings of the mike happen rarely: Openings in late-night are as few and far between as on the Supreme Court bench, and when filled tend to be occupied for a similar length of time, which makes the premiere of "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" epochal by definition, irrespective of content or execution.

Fallon is an eager, amiable fellow of 34 who spent several seasons on "Saturday Night Live," specializing in characters who but for the the grace of god, one feels, he might easily have become himself: a tech support guy, a morning radio host, a college student doing his comedy into a webcam. Though I've never found him exactly compelling, he's a friendly presence and the late-night role seems on the face of it a good fit — "Weekend Update" already showed that he can deliver topical one-liners while wearing a suit, at any rate. On his opening night, he seemed nervous but happy.

It was not a bad beginning, in spite of offering notoriously poor interview Robert De Niro as the first guest. (Fallon had prepared a list of questions that could be answered in a word, but the comic effect was negligible, and the interview was in fact poor.) The actor's mere presence was a sort of benediction in itself, nonetheless, and he consented to participate in a throwaway "Space Train" sketch and to impersonate Fallon, who impersonated him, in a bit recycled from "SNL." And next guest Justin Timberlake, an old friend of "SNL," was comfortable and amusing enough for the three of them.

A nicely downbeat cold opening featured Conan O'Brien clearing out his stuff from the dressing room. ("Will you be taking Jay's old dressing room when you go to L.A.?" "Jay isn't leaving.") The following monologue was a thing of its kind — that is, not as funny as you'd like — delivered with occasional grimaces and grunts and hand in pocket Johnny Carson-style. There was a slickly made short film on the blond mom target demographic ("They purchase expensive items like minivans, but also everyday items like yogurt, Williams-Sonoma flatware, personalized checks and discreet dolphin tattoos that say I'm two chardonnays away from ruining your wedding") and a bit in which audience members were invited to lick a lawn mower, a copy machine, a goldfish bowl. Musical guest Van Morrison finished the evening with a shambling "Sweet Thing."

"My only competition is sleep," Fallon has been saying in interviews, conveniently forgetting Craig Ferguson, his actual and estimable competition (along with the back half of Jimmy Kimmel's somewhat more forgettable, less estimable midnight show). Ferguson has created something original and personal over on CBS, and whether Fallon will get to be nearly as good, or even mount a decent interview with a person he doesn't already know, remains to be seen.

But it was an encouraging start. A series of pre-premiere "test shows" (from which emerged one viral video, Jack "Kenneth the Page" McBrayer's response to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal) allowed the host to hit the ground running, or at least not stumbling. In Fallon's defense, if he needs one, this is a form that develops in the fullness of time, as chances are taken and limits tested and you learn the things you can learn only in the doing, night after night after midnight.

— Robert Lloyd

Photo: NBC

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