The sixth host in the history of The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon has spent much of the last 20 years within Rockefeller Center, always looking to provide as much energy, entertainment value and out-of-the-box thinking as possible. Joining Saturday Night Live in 1998, Fallon then turned to the late-night sphere, cutting his teeth on Late Night before taking on that arena’s biggest spotlight.
A six-time Emmy winner, Fallon has always had a specific aspiration in late night—to craft the quintessential variety show. Bringing The Tonight Show 11 nominations over the course of five years, Fallon has done just that, while surpassing 1000 episodes and garnering 20 million YouTube subscribers—the first late-night host to achieve this milestone.
Over the last year, Fallon has taken things up a notch, in the pursuit of the next great idea. A social media-savvy tour de force, he found a worthy extension of his brand in 2015’s Lip Sync Battle and has since moved on to develop That’s My Jam, an unscripted music and variety game show inspired by his oft-viral segment, “Wheel of Musical Impressions,” with an eye toward producing further projects in the “game show/reality world” through his company, Electric Hot Dog.
This year, Fallon launching the short-form series “Beto Breaks The Internet”—with videos produced for social media platforms, new and old—while gathering an audience of 1500 for the first-ever late-night show in Central Park, and embracing a new emphasis on giving back. While typically avoidant of hot-button material, the Tonight Show host worked with The Home Depot Foundation to build homes for the displaced, also offering his platform to TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie, who announced on the show his $5 million donation to end gun violence, inspiring 75,000 Americans to send postcards to their representatives in support of this cause.
Of course, Fallon’s crowning achievement as a 2019 late-night disruptor would have to be his Puerto Rico special, for which he brought his crew to the neglected U.S. territory, in order to shine a light on recovery efforts. Reflecting, with a tear in his eye, on the devastation wrought by two 2017 hurricanes, and his profound experience in Puerto Rico, Fallon came to understand “how powerful the show is,” and the gift The Tonight Show has in the internet age, which hosts like Steve Allen and Johnny Carson never knew—the ability to affect culture and humanity not only within U.S. borders, but around the world.
Heartened by the success of his ambitious experiment in Puerto Rico, Fallon hopes to travel more, and further test the limits, in terms of the experience The Tonight Show can provide. “I mean, why not try everything? Come on, challenge us,” Fallon says. “What can we do?”
You’ve spent so much of your career within Rockefeller Center, hosting two-late night talk shows there over the course of the last 10 years. What does it mean to you to have such a sense of history and achievement tied to this place?
It’s amazing. On 6th Avenue, my name is on the side of the building, and that really kind of humbles you when you see it. Because you go, “I remember walking in this place, auditioning for Saturday Night Live.” I had a disposable camera with me, and I was taking pictures of the elevator carpeting that had the NBC peacock on it, because I never thought I’d come back, and I just wanted to be able to show my kid, “Daddy auditioned for Saturday Night Live, and he was a comedian”—explain what my whole career was at the time, if nothing happened. Then, it all just started moving and took off, and Lorne Michaels, he changed my life. He just believed in me, and that’s really all it takes.
I didn’t think I’d be doing it this long. Tonight Show, I never thought I’d be doing. I just never considered that a job until recently. Because when you’re a kid, you just kind of think that Johnny Carson comes with the TV set. [laughs] You’re like, “What is that? I don’t even know what that is. Is that a person?” But I think he’d be proud to see where we’ve taken the show, globally.
The late-night space has evolved a lot in recent years, and awards-wise, the focus always seems to be on those who are pushing boundaries. The Tonight Show has been rewarded for doing so, earning its first Emmy for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media – Social TV Experience.
Yeah, it’s interesting. There’s so many awards and things you can break the show down into now—the short-form and digital and all that stuff. And the next thing you know, they’re like, “Hey, you’re nominated for 30 Emmys.” There’s new categories every year, but we just keep our heads down and try to do our best—and honestly, I’m happy with the nomination. If I get the nomination and lose to John Oliver, I’m happy with that. But I just love being in the room. Obviously, I’m a big fan of the Emmys; I’ve hosted, and I love award shows in general, just because growing up, my mom liked them. The Academy Awards would come on, and she would get dressed up and give acceptance speeches, and have champagne. It was corny, but it made me and my sister love award shows.
An award is great, but you always want an award when you’re having a tough time, as opposed to when you’re doing really well. It’s like, “Another award? Dude, this guy’s having a bad year; his tire just blew out, and he can’t afford gas. Give him one and make him happy.” [laughs] But I do love it, and it’s fun.
I always want to push boundaries, and there’s so many ways now that you can do it. You can be as creative as you want; there’s so many avenues. Just this afternoon, we released this thing called “Beto Breaks the Internet,” where I did a Beto O’Rourke impression of him standing on stuff. He loves to stand on things, even though he’s like eight feet tall. But we did something for Facebook, we did a thing on Instagram, we did an ASMR thing for YouTube, that only YouTube will understand. And we actually did a song on Myspace; I’m sure Myspace is like, “Yes! Thanks for remembering us.” But I mean, that’s just for fun. Maybe the Facebook thing could air on the show, but that was just like, “Oh, this could be a fun thing to just do and drop like Beyoncé.” Just drop it, and either you find it or you don’t. You can go creative [in that way] or you can go, “Let’s do the first show in Central Park. What could go wrong?” And you almost hope that something does go wrong. It’s like you want that tight-wire thing.
Your Larry Sanders-inspired fifth anniversary episode certainly broke the mold. What inspired that?
I was talking to my wife about the Carol Burnett episode, and she goes, “You should just do that. Make one episode, where it’s behind the scenes. But it’s all scripted, the whole thing.” Then I’m like, “Let’s just do it.”
I said, “Look, we have our fifth anniversary coming up. Let’s see if Tina [Fey]’s around, because Tina would be great to play with.” We got Ben Stiller, and I got in a fight with the animal expert, Robert Irwin, and got to yell some pretty good lines to him.
But the fact that we got to do that type of show…We didn’t warn anyone, we didn’t sneak it to the press. It’s either tune in [or miss out]. We don’t know what’s going to happen, and whoever’s watching, some kids are like, “I don’t get this; I don’t like this. I don’t want to see Jimmy being mean to somebody.” But it’s all acting, it’s all fun, just seeing how far we could push it, and try something different. I’ve always wanted to do that show, and I’m glad we did it.
I’d say our two best shows this year were the fifth anniversary and the Puerto Rico show.
Can you explain the genesis of that episode and what went into bringing it together?
The Puerto Rico show was inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was taking Hamilton down to Puerto Rico, to just basically raise awareness that Puerto Rico exists, and they need help. I was like, “Jeez, if you can move a Broadway show to Puerto Rico—not only a Broadway show, but a hit Broadway show…” [To] move it anywhere is near impossible; there’s so many things involved with that. But he pulled it off, man. And I was like, “That’s inspiring. We’ve got to do something. Can we do one show?”
So, we took a skeleton crew of like 30 people, a digital camera crew. We went down, and kind of beat out what acts we wanted to do. I was like, “We can do something with Hamilton, Lin. José Andrés is over there,” who is a living angel right now on earth. I go, “We have to have some good music. What’s the biggest thing right now?” and they’re like, “Bad Bunny.” I go, “Let’s do something with Bad Bunny where it’s like a full-on, live, choreographed dance down in Old San Juan, and just make this a commercial, a love letter for Puerto Rico.”
So, we went down there and, dude, it was a game changer. It really was a punch in the gut. People were crying and hugging me, and it was honestly insane, how much they were appreciative. Like, “Wow, somebody thought about us. I can’t believe this is happening.” It’s awful, dude; you can’t even imagine.
[But] it’s open for business. The hotels are open, it’s paradise; you can go there now. If you don’t want to donate money, you don’t have to. You can just go on vacation there. That helps the economy. That helps these people try to bring their lives back. It takes years to rebuild after such a tragedy. It’s catastrophic. If you have a family, and no power for months, no running water, no roof, and it’s raining on you…What’s going on? So, this little drop of something—some entertainment, or something just to go, “Hi, we see you guys”—it meant a lot to those guys, and it meant a lot to us, too.
Over the last year, you’ve regularly embraced the philanthropic potential that comes with your platform. What has inspired this action on your part?
[After] the fifth anniversary show, we had the opportunity to do a big type of blow out, song-and-dance show at Radio City, or something big, and I go, “It just doesn’t feel like that time right now. It’s such an odd time in our culture, and I feel like what would make me the happiest is if we just showed people, hey. Through all this negativity, there’s a way to give back. So, what we’ll do is, every night, we’ll spotlight a different cause, or a different way to change the world in a more positive way.”
So, we had Blake [Mycoskie] from TOMS on. We had Home Depot build a family a house. We had SeriousFun; that was Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang, which is probably the main charity I work with, where all the money from my Ben & Jerry’s ice cream goes. And they do amazing stuff with these kids; if you even just go to their website for two seconds, it’ll change your life. They’re giving these kids [dealing with serious illnesses] a week to be at camp and raise a little hell; it’s heartbreaking.
But I felt so good at the end of that week. We were like, “Applause. Well done, guys. We could have had a big party, but instead we changed something. We made a statement and said, ‘No, we’re going to do this instead.’” Again, it’s pushing the boundaries of what you can do with your show. How can you bend the edges, and how big can you get?
You mentioned your series of Beto O’Rourke shorts. Has it been fun to finesse your political impressions, gearing up for 2020?
Yeah. It’s been interesting and kind of refreshing, because there’s a different headline now from the President every single night. So, I get to try to figure out and find a voice. Buttigieg is very Kermit the Frog; a very kind of jello-y voice. And when he yells loudly, it’s even more Kermit-y. I’m not sure [of] a take on it yet, but he does have a kind of funny laugh, almost like a John Travolta-y kind of laugh. But I like to try to find the thing.
We have these new writers straight out of Yale, Rebecca Shaw and Ben Kronengold, and they’ve been writing these great pieces following the political thing. They wrote me as Bernie Sanders, rapping to “Old Town Road”—but it was talking about “Old Town Hall,” because CNN was doing these five town halls in one night. So, I was like, [affecting Bernie Sanders voice] “We’re going to talk to the people in the Old Town Hall, I’m going to tell them we don’t need a wall.” I got to wear the bald cap and the hair, but it was to the beat of Lil Nas X, and it was fun.
Usually, when we have a video that people talk about the next day or gets headlines, if you have two videos, one will eat the other. But that night we had Avengers; we did a video. It took us a long time to get all the Avengers singing “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and we got Billy Joel’s permission. At the end, it was all the Avengers in a mosaic—and flipped around, it was a picture of Stan Lee. We had that and Bernie on the same night, and they both took off. And it’s rare to see that. But it was fun.
That was a big week. Because then, me and Paul Rudd did a shot-for-shot remake of “You Spin Me Round,” Dead or Alive, that video of the song from the ‘80s. Then, “Two Stings on the Moon,” I got to sing with Sting on the moon and pretend I was him, and we’re floating around. It was definitely a variety show week. [laughs]
Your contract with NBC takes you through 2021. How long do you think you’d like to remain as host of The Tonight Show?
I’m negotiating currently. They should really know that I have a lot of offers on the table. So, if you’d get the word out to NBC. No, I’m just kidding. Who knows where we’re going to be? I think I’ll do it as long as people are watching and people are interested. I’m definitely still interested. I love talking to people, I love pop culture; I really do love the job, and it’s really a cool period of time for content, that it can live on so many different platforms. And there’s all new things starting, whether it be a TikTok challenge, or maybe my show will only be 15 seconds long every night. I don’t know; I have no idea what’s going to happen in 2021, [but] that might be the future.