PASADENA — Since 1954, more men have been president of the United States (11) and walked on the moon (12) than served as the host of NBC's "The Tonight Show." Jimmy Fallon becomes only the sixth host of the weeknight talk show Monday night.
Because he's joining such select company, Fallon understands the legacy he is inheriting. That's one reason his version of "The Tonight Show" will look a lot like those who hosted in the early days.
"I wish that Steve Allen and Johnny Carson were still around just to see what we're going to do with the show, because I think, when they invented this show, it was all about being fun and silly and goofy," Fallon tells TV critics. "Steve Allen was the first guy to sit in a plate with ice cream and pretend he's a banana split and get chocolate syrup all over him and roll around. That's what it should be. It should be goofy and fun and make everyone laugh. Everyone works too hard, and we're the first thing after your local news. You watch us, and you get a good laugh and you go to bed with a smile on your face. And that's our job."
Fallon will mix that tone with what he's learned while hosting "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" since 2009. He admits that interviews were a weakness when he started the late, late night job, but after five years of practice he has refined his skills.
He wants "The Tonight Show" to be what "Late Night" evolved into during his run.
"I feel like we've blossomed into what now is going to be the new 'The Tonight Show.' So that will be the show, and then that will grow and change, hopefully, — if I'm here another five years— into something totally different than what it's going to start as," he says.
Fallon's new job puts him in direct competition with the "Late Show With David Letterman" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" as well as a host of other viewing options. He's well aware of the competition, but Fallon's not worried. His approach is to do the best job he can do and hope it's enough to draw a large audience.
Guests have always been a big part of the lure of late-night TV. The 39-year-old Fallon doesn't plan to change the way guests are booked just because he's hosting a show that airs an hour earlier.
His first-week guest list includes:
Monday: Will Smith and musical guest U2
Tuesday: Jerry Seinfeld, Kristen Wiig and musical guest Lady Gaga
Wednesday: Bradley Cooper and musical guest Tim McGraw
Thursday: First Lady Michelle Obama, Will Ferrell and musical guest Arcade Fire
Friday: Justin Timberlake
He's wanted U2 as a guest for years.
"When I first started, I tried to get U2 as a guest and they didn't want to tell me, but at the time, they had a secret thing with Letterman. They were doing a week on Letterman. So I couldn't get them. So instead I got the next best Irishman, which is Van Morrison, and he came, and he was my first musical guest. So now, hopefully, I have lucky times four," Fallon says.
He should probably consider a Tennessee native — Justin Timberlake — as his good luck charm. Timberlake — booked whenever possible — is willing to take on any craziness imagined by the writers.
Some of the antics celebrities have agreed to do have surprised Fallon.
When it was first suggested Tom Cruise play Egg Russian Roulette, a game of cracking eggs on his head, Cruise's publicist said "absolutely not" but told Fallon to pitch the idea to Cruise. He did and Cruise agreed.
The game features a carton of eggs, some hard-boiled and some raw. Each player picks an egg to break over their head. Cruise pulled two raw eggs immediately.
"He's covered in yolk. I started laughing. I'm like, 'I'm so sorry. It wasn't planned.' He's like, 'Why would I ever do the show every year? This is awful.' And now he's a friend of the show. He's been back numerous times," Fallon says. "But it's stuff like that, you go, 'What a good sport to do stuff like that.'
"I like to see celebrities tell me about their movies, but I also like to see a different side of celebrities, and I think when we do games and things like that, you do see a different side to your favorite celebrities, and it's kind of fun for them."
Based in Los Angeles since 1972, Fallon is moving "The Tonight Show" back to New York. The show will originate from Studio 6B, the same studio where Carson and Steve Allen did "The Tonight Show."
Fallon was determined to move the show to New York because he's lived there all his life and has had success with "Late Night" being there. His argument was that "The Tonight Show" started in New York and the city is actually a better fit than sunny California.
"It's just a beautiful city. I think of New York, I think of nighttime. I just think it's the perfect place, where it should be. I think of the lights and Times Square and Broadway and nightlife and the excitement and the glitz and the glamour of all that is 'The Tonight Show,' " Fallon says. "I feel like booking-wise, it's never been a problem for us. We've had the president of the United States on our show. I mean, you can't get bigger than that.
"Why not bring it back to New York? What's going to happen? What's the worst that can happen?"
Well, the worst that could happen is that he could go the way of Conan O'Brien — the last person to move out of the late-night spot to take over "The Tonight Show." O'Brien wasn't even given time to unpack before he was bounced and Jay Leno was brought back. Of course, the short 9-month stint by Conan O'Brien is the exception to the show's longevity rule.
Leno had hosted the show since 1992, when Carson ended his 30-year run. Fallon would love to have a run as long as Leno, but he's not taking on the job with any end game in mind.
"I'm happy I'm here five years at 'Late Night.' We're just having a good time. You think that this is the way to go to get to 'The Tonight Show,' but now that 'The Tonight Show' is happening, I don't know. I'm just going to play it by ear and keep my head down and just work as hard as I can and see how long that gets me."
"The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" launches following The Olympics at midnight Monday-Thursday, Feb. 17-20, with the Friday, Feb. 21 telecast moving to its regular time slot of 11:35 p.m., on NBC (KSEE, Channel 24.1)
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.