Ray Richmond is contributing to Deadline’s Emmy coverage.

After a slow start (who can forget that dreadful premiere-night interview with Robert De Niro), Jimmy Fallon’s late-night NBC show has grown by leaps and bounds in its 28 months on the air. Once just a sideshow in the big Conan-Leno controversy, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon has emerged as one the hottest late-night programs, a status validated today by Emmy nominations for best variety, music or comedy series and for writing for VMC series, the show’s first major Emmy recognition. But for a while, Fallon this morning feared another snub when he woke up at the crack of dawn to no congratulatory phone calls or emails. Turned out he was just too early as he got up at 7:40 AM ET, an hour before the Emmy nominations announcement. “I screwed up the time really badly,” Fallon admitted happily this morning in an exclusive interview with Deadline, having later discovered that he’d earned three noms, for best VMC series and writing as well as for Interactive Media. “I’d had this whole thing worked out in my head about how to keep up morale among the staff. Then I get a call from my wife. And she’s screaming and crying with joy. That’s when I knew I’d have my work cut out trying to make the writing staff depressed again.”

Fallon called the news of his first major Emmy nominations “crazy” and “thrilling” and leaving him feeling “psyched to the gills.” This, despite his having to now compete in a comedy-variety category against The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, which has taken home the trophy for a record eight consecutive years. That jeopardizes Late Night With Jimmy Fallon‘s perfect Emmy record to date. “We’ve actually won Emmys for all three times we’ve been nominated (twice for Interactive Media – Nonfiction and once for Short Form Picture Editing),” Fallon said. “This is probably going to be the first year we find out what it’s like to lose, but we don’t care. We’re just psyched that the TV Academy recognized how hard we’ve been working and how different this show is. … We honestly just feel really lucky and excited and honored and humbled and thankful.”

His Late Night enjoyed what he considered “an amazing year” that included a history of rap and hip-hop medley with Justin Timberlake that went viral; a parody duet with Paul McCartney that saluted “scrambled eggs” (to the tune of “Yesterday”); a musical satire of Neil Young in tandem with Bruce Springsteen and a cover of the YouTube hit Friday with Emmy rival Stephen Colbert. (The Colbert Report is nominated in the two top VMC series categories alongside Fallon.) “We’ve honestly been incredibly lucky,” Fallon, considered one of the true nice guys on showbiz, believes. “We take a lot of care to be sure that people know they’re going to have a great time if they come on the show, that they won’t be made to look bad or silly. I have to believe that positive vibe has started to pay off.”

At the same time, Fallon finds it “unbelievable” that his show was nominated while David Letterman’s and Jay Leno’s were not as Emmy voters have gone with younger-generation comedians like Fallon, Conan O’Brien, Stewart and Colbert. “Considering where we came from a little more than two years ago, it’s unbelievable,” Fallon says. “We had no idea what we were doing. I think maybe the nomination helps show we’ve finally figured things out.”