Like Godot, Jimmy Fallon never showed up for “A Sit-Down With The Tonight Show Writers,” a New York Comedy Festival/Times Talks event Saturday afternoon moderated by New York Times pop culture scribe Dave Itzkoff. Not that Fallon was expected; this was pitched as a behind-the-scenes look at how the top late night show is created every night. But fealty, deserved to be sure, was never far from the lips of a team that has been with Fallon in some cases since high school.
The panel included head writer A.D. Miles, showrunner Josh Lieb, supervising writer Mike DiCenzo and producer Gavin Purcell, and the recurring theme was that Fallon’s skills as impressionist, musician and conceptualizer keep the team in a state of creative tension. “He was incredibly popular in school,” supervising writer Gerard Bradford recalled. “I hate him so much.”
Innovations such as the increased use of brandable bits and an aggressive social media presence have contributed significantly to the show’s ongoing rule in theme period. It’s all about “how you keep in touch with the fans 24 hours a day,” Purcell said.
Itzkoff proved himself a connoisseur of Fallonia and, after teasing out details of the daily rigors of countless meetings to discuss each segment of the night’s show, proved himself well-versed in the elements of the host’s success: As an impressionist, he’s a quick study; he’s a comedian who “happens to be a great musician,” putting him on solid ground with “musicians who happen to be great actors” — including several members of house band The Roots — and an ability to seduce guests out of their comfort zone, as in a “she-said/he-said” encounter with Nicole Kidman. The accompanying clip of his impersonation of Neil Young, accompanied by a very game Bruce Springsteen on a cover of “Whip My Hair” is testament to those qualities.
“Many more things are possible than you would have thought,” Lieb told Itzkoff, who included a well-chosen handful of clips to make his points during an entertaining hour.