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If you’re watching the Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, post pandemic, the soulful sound of The Roots has been replaced by the racket provided by Franny & Winnie Fallon, the pint-sized blonde-haired beauties who’ve become Fallon’s main foils in a makeshift talk show that still features guests like Jennifer Garner and Lin-Manuel Miranda, but is thriving on YouTube and NBC, carried by the charm of the Fallon can making the best of a self-quarantined existence. The camerawork comes from wife Nancy Juvonen, for years Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films partner, and a shot of life from these adorable kids who come careening down a built-in house slide (we’re all jealous). The result is Fallon’s level best effort at providing humor at a time we desperately need to laugh, raising big sums for worthy causes in the process. Here, improv vet Fallon explains how he managed this pivot and makes it all work.
DEADLINE: This is a scary moment where laughter is exceptionally important. That first Saturday Night Live episode after 9/11, which opened with Rudy Giuliani and the first responders from the World Trade Center, felt like a cultural zeitgeist moment, a healing mechanism. What were the biggest challenges there, in figuring out the rules of what you should do?
JIMMY FALLON: It was such a fine line. Obviously, you have to take the situation seriously. As a comedian in a comedy show, it’s about understanding people have feelings and anxieties, fears, and a lot of unknown stuff. All that comes into play. You also had to let everyone know that we were feeling all that, ourselves, and we wanted to try and give you some balance to the situation. So you can have even a little bit of normalcy and start the baby steps toward getting your normal brain, and your thoughts, back.
I remember that line from the show you’re talking about. Lorne was talking to then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Lorne says, ‘Can we be funny?’ And Rudy says, ‘Why start now?’ That was Lorne’s line, he wrote that. I remember when he thought of it as we were trying to figure out what to do in the show, and him saying, ‘Oh, that’s a good line.’ He wrote that down and it was the one we used. It was the line that made us all laugh, almost to tears. Because we’d been pent up, built up with so many feelings, and we just wanted a release valve. And it was like, ‘ah, yes, can we please be funny, and start moving along with our lives and getting back to normal.’ That is so tricky, but I remember that moment so vividly.
I was on Saturday Night Live at the time, and I didn’t really know what to do. I was fortunate to have funny friends and comedians. But I looked to the late night hosts to see what they were talking about, and how they were reacting to everything. I watched Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno and David Letterman was the one who really got to me. Remember where he said – I’m paraphrasing – “there’s only one requirement of any of us, and that is to be courageous. Because courage defines all other human behavior.” And then he said, “I believe pretending to be courageous is just as good as the real thing.” I never forgot that line.
DEADLINE: How did that factor into what you’re doing right now, putting on a Tonight Show from home as you self-quarantine like everyone else?
FALLON: My wife reminded me of that line, pretending to be courageous is just as good as the real thing, when we self-quarantined. After we did one show without a studio audience and NBC then wisely said, hey, we’re going to shut this down. Everyone, go home to your families, and stay inside and be safe. I did, and then I said, “I don’t know what to do.” And Nancy said, “remember Letterman and that courage speech? You always talk about that.” I said, “I have to do something. I can’t not do anything, and just sit back and wait.”
I drove out to P.C. Richards here, going, I’m just going to get a tripod. Just something so I can hold my phone. I’ll broadcast that, whatever it is. If it’s funny or not. Just some content that people can look at, and talk about. I just feel like, that’s my job. And then we had a meeting with my producers, again keeping in mind the need to take this issue very seriously. And every single person was on board, on the Tonight Show. I said, I’m not forcing you into this, you can do whatever you want. They all agreed and said, we want to help. All the writers chipped in ideas, we started talking about things.
But it’s just me, over here. I actually bought a printer, too. So I got the tripod, and I’m printing everything out myself. Hooking the printer up to the computer, and trying to format and send it to our editors so they can post it on YouTube. Which takes over an hour to post a 20-30 minute video, by the way. I’m learning all this, and my wife is my director, and the camera operator. She is walking around with the selfie stick with an iPhone.
My kids have been my co-stars and they’ve been helping me and being funny and making drawings for me, the graphics department. They just want to play, really. They have no idea they’re on TV. The response to all that stuff has been people thanking me. We thought a way to make it a little different would be to have every show dedicated to a different charity. Every guest we’ve had on the show so far, had a charity they mentioned. We’ve raised a lot of money with that. YouTube has helped us out. They’ve got a donate button. After the charity goes through some legal vetting to make sure it’s legitimate, YouTube puts a button next to the video and if you press it, you go right to the site and you can donate.
So we did that online at first, because we didn’t know if we could air it on NBC, and things were just happening so fast. That’s the thing about this, it is all moving so fast. We did it through YouTube first and we raised a lot of money and it became a domino effect. Everyone started reaching out, wanting to help. With new ideas. And now we are going to have a corporate sponsor, matching the donations.
DEADLINE: A moment on when that decision was made by NBC to send everybody home. What has been the challenges in keeping your staff upbeat, paid, engaged and hopeful?
FALLON: It was kind of a scary day at the office, to be honest. It wasn’t the best day to write comedy. What we did was, we made sure that everyone who wanted to go home, just go home. Right now. If you can work from home, great, but if you can’t, we’ll cover you. I just wanted to make sure everyone was okay. A lot of people have anxiety, and that and fear of the unknown is serious. I wanted to calm everyone down. I have a great team on our show and they really helped out there, because office management is not really my forte. It was scary and there was a lot we didn’t know. What if I ran into somebody that has it? A lot of questions. We had a crisis manager come down from NBC corporate and talk to everyone. He was great, and stressed washing your hands and not touching your face, and walked us through those first days of what this thing was. We didn’t know how long it would last and we still don’t. So we did that show with no audience, finished it and everyone was gone as soon as it ended. We were going to do a Friday show too, and NBC said, yeah, we’re just not going to take that risk. And we said, of course.
We ended up not doing the show that Friday and that’s when I ended up thinking, we’ve got to do something. Because the world is going to need something to watch and laugh at. My audience is always there for me though the good times and I want to be there for them through the bad times. That’s my job. To be there. To be here. The show must go on.
DEADLINE: Why do you think this show has basically become about the most popular thing on YouTube?
FALLON: [Laughs]. I have no idea…I think maybe because people know me. I’m in the position where Leno and Letterman and Conan were when I was on Saturday Night Live, after September 11. I’m in that position now where people look for what they’re comfortable with. They’ve had me over to their house every single week night for almost ten years now, so why not have them over to my house for a change? They’re familiar with me; they’ve seen my whole career. I started at SNL when I was 23. I’m 45 now, so 22 years of being on television. They’re familiar with me and hopefully I can be a little bit of comfort food for them.
DEADLINE: A surprise has been the comic roles played by your daughters, barreling in and out as you are doing your job. When you and Nancy told the girls what you were doing, and advised them on how you needed them to behave or at least keep it to a low roar, how closely have they followed your stage directions?
FALLON: [Laughs]. They’ve not listened to anything. They are the worst co-stars, ever. I’ve never worked with more unprofessional people, in my life. They just want to play, climb on me, sit on my shoulders. And the thing is you can’t tell them. Nothing is planned. I’ll say, “Will you laugh at daddy,” and they say, “No.” They think it’s funny and they have no idea they are helping people, but I was walking the dog today and two people stopped and said, “You have the most beautiful girls. Thank you for doing what you’re doing, it’s really helping us.” Someone sent me a social media message on Twitter and suggested, “you should change the show to The Winnie, Fanny And Nancy Show, Starring Jimmy Fallon.” Because, that’s the show.
DEADLINE: I’ve watched your SNL performances over the years and recall when you guest hosted a holiday show and sang the song “Baby Please Come Home.” You paused to mention several classic skits you were in like “Cowbell” and “Debbie Downer,” and you said you laughed and ruined every one of them. Is it possible that Franny & Winnie are delivering a karma payback?
FALLON: [Laughs] Oh, please write that I laughed at that. Yes, yes. Now I feel the pain of my co-stars, and the writers from Saturday Night Live. It’s all coming back to me now. [My girls], they’re so unprofessional! Who did they learn this from? Who could have taught them this?
DEADLINE: What is the biggest adjustment doing your monologue by reading a page from that printer you just got from PC Richards, without a studio audience there to react?
FALLON: As a performer, you love the feedback and you really need it. You have to rely on your comedy instincts when your sounding board is your wife, who really hasn’t been giving it up the past couple shows. I’m assuming there’s someone laughing, somewhere. It’s definitely awkward. I miss it, hearing the roar of the crowd, even just when you walk out through the curtain. It’s been odd but in a weird way I am growing to like it. It’s becoming weirdly funnier to me, that I’m not getting a response. I feel a bit like Robert De Niro’s character, in King of Comedy. I’m hearing fake audience response in my brain, when there is none. And I’m just waiting for my mom to yell, “ Keep quiet down there!” And I go, “Maaa, I’m doing the show and you just ruined the take!” I am trying to imagine the reaction I would be getting from some of these jokes.
DEADLINE: You mentioned that David Letterman line and the one from Lorne Michaels in the 9/11 show, and they way you describe your makeshift monologues on the makeshift show you’re doing from home. There is a commonality, in that in all of them, the humor is self-deprecating. It that a key in being aware and creating humor in a delicate moment like this, by not being afraid to play the fool?
FALLON: That is a big part of it. And it has always been one of my feelings about the brand of my company. You can show people that you’re not perfect, that you’re vulnerable and feeling the same things we’re all feeling. We all have kids climbing over us, who don’t laugh at our jokes. When you come at it from that direction, everyone can feel, he’s human, just like us, and we can laugh at him. I always like to be in on the joke, but I am always down for a good joke whether I’m the butt of it, of if I thought of it. And I will always play along. It goes back to learning improv, where “Yes, and…” is the rule. If there is anything funny, I want to be involved. If you can make people laugh, that’s the key, especially in these times.
DEADLINE: Messaging is tricky though. You were part of that viral video Gal Gadot organized, the rendition of the John Lennon song “Imagine.” The intention was sweet, but the viral mob beat it up like it owed them money. Is there a lesson that well-meaning celebs might learn as they try to communicate with their fans in this crazy moment?
FALLON: It is all moving so fast, and you can overthink things. Me, I’m trying to do as much as I can. Anything I can do, I’m there for you. This is a time where, the headline might change tomorrow, or later tonight. It’s all moving so fast. To me, it’s, do what you can, when you can. Anything you can do that will help…what we’re doing, the charity component is helpful. If you can link to a charity, or something you care about and say, these people are really hurting right now, and here’s a corner that hasn’t been visited and can you help these people out?
There’s lots of ways to inspire people who might say, I have a food pantry down the street from my house and haven’t thought about it. Maybe I’ll donate money to them or bring a can of soup. I think, do whatever you can and it will all sort itself out. Some things will work and some things won’t. But if it’s coming from the right place, people will see that.