Critic's NotesAs Jimmy Fallon Starts His Next Late-Night Job, A Look Back At How He Got His First One
By David Bianculli, TVWorthWatching.com
- Feb. 18, 2014
Jimmy Fallon was born Sept. 19, 1974 – 20 years after the premiere of NBC’s Tonight Show, and one year before the premiere of NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Fifteen years ago, he joined the cast of SNL. Monday night, he takes over The Tonight Show…
There are direct connections between those two shows, and between those fifteen years, including, consistently and significantly, executive producer Lorne Michaels.
Michaels hired Fallon for SNL in 1998, tapped him to co-host “Weekend Update” with Tina Fey in 2000, and persuaded him to succeed Conan O’Brien and host what became NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in 2009. Now, starting Monday, Michaels and Fallon team for yet another late-night show – the granddaddy of them all, now known as The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
This means that Michaels, by betting on and continuing to benefit from Fallon’s talents and popularity, has added to his SNL flagship by taking control of 10 additional weekly hours of late-night NBC programming: five with Late Night, about to be inherited by SNL veteran Seth Meyers, and five more with Fallon’s incarnation of The Tonight Show.
This also means Fallon has spent his entire NBC career at 30 Rock, working out of neighboring studios: Studio 8-H for his six years with SNL, Studio 6-A and 6-B for his five years with Late Night, and, starting Feb. 17, 2014, what most likely is a multi-decade run back in Studio 6-B – the same studio that housed five years of Jack Paar and the first 10 of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.
Back in 1999, when Jimmy Fallon was finishing up his freshman season on Saturday Night Live, I interviewed him, having seen something in his enthusiasm, his musical talent and his comic instincts that made him seem especially interesting. He turned out to be a keen student of TV comedy history as well, which makes his ascendancy in late-night TV seem even more inevitable and appropriate.
My original, edited interview with Jimmy Fallon, conducted when he was 24 years old, ran in the New York Daily News – but on the eve of his inheritance of NBC’s The Tonight Show at age 39, I thought it was worth running more lengthy chunks from that interview, to capture his enthusiasm, his commitment – and his soon-to-be-tapped potential.Jimmy Fallon interview, May 16, 1999:
ON HIS ENTHUSIASM FOR ‘SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE’:
BIANCULLI: The reason I was so eager to talk to you is because every time you are on the show, you shine with what really looks like enjoyment at what you’re doing.
BIANCULLI: And that’s very rare. I –
FALLON: (chuckles) That’s – God – That’s so nice. Thanks for saying that.
BIANCULLI: Well, it’s okay.
FALLON: It’s because I do. I love what I’m doing. It’s, like, this is, like, the greatest job on Earth. And I’m so, you know, I’m so happy that I’m doing it. (chuckles)
BIANCULLI: Well, how much did you know about the show growing up?
FALLON: I am like the hugest fan, I swear to God. Like, I am the biggest fan there is. I used to tape it – I used to watch it and tape it every Saturday night since, like – religiously since, like, ’86. I mean, like – I mean, I have them all on tape. In college I used to just, like, hang out in my dorm, get a six-pack, you know and just watch the show, by myself. And just watch the whole show, and then, you know, even tape it and then go out at one o’clock.
BIANCULLI: And then go out! Oh that’s funny.
FALLON: Yeah, like, my friends would have parties and they’d be like, “Hey! What’s up, man! How come you can’t – you know, I’ll set up a room so you can watch in the room.” And I’m like, “No, I gotta watch it at home. Then I’ll come out,” you know? They’re like, “You’re a lunatic.”
BIANCULLI: Who introduced you to it?
FALLON: My parents. My mom and dad. They loved the show and I remember, like, it was so big, you know. They used to imitate them and laugh, you know, and whatever and – We had one of those old VCRs, you know, back in, like, I think it was ’79 maybe or something?
BIANCULLI: Yeah? That’s one of the real old ones.
FALLON: Yeah. It was the two pieces and it was huge?
FALLON: Yeah. So they had that and they used to tape it and then, like, show me and my sister, you know, the sketches that weren’t as risqué as the other ones. (chuckles) Like Wild and Crazy Guys or something. Or King Tut.
BIANCULLI: Oh that’s great! So you were literally raised on these things.
FALLON: Yeah, you know, like, I used to watch all them and then imitate them and, you know, and – Like, I loved it because, you know, it was just – made everyone laugh, you know. Everyone thought it was great…
ON HIS ‘SNL’ AUDITION:
BIANCULLI: So what did you do for your audition?
FALLON: What I did was, I had this stand-up act and they were, like, “You know what? We’ve seen the stand-up act. Do something different with that. We want three characters and three impressions.” And I do a lot of impressions. I said, “You know what? I’m just gonna do my own thing.” And I did, like, a celebrity walk-a-thon. So I did, like, you know, just different celebrities. Like maybe ten celebrities? I started off, like, Jerry Seinfeld, you know, like, (imitates Seinfeld) “You know, we’re all going to the same place. Why don’t we just take a bus!,” you know? And, like, so then – and I did, like – I did three original characters after that. I did the, like, twelve celebrities, and then I finished off with three guitar impressions. Three musical impressions.
BIANCULLI: So you did do the music the first time there?
FALLON: Yeah, I said – I just did, like, three – I’m trying to think – can’t remember who I did even. I think I did The Cure and Alanis Morissette.
BIANCULLI: Now, when you do The Cure, tell me who’s in the room judging you at this point. Because you have to know whether or not they even know The Cure.
FALLON: (laughs) You know what? I don’t know why I did The Cure even because I’m not – something just told me I should do it and, like – what happens is, this audition is the most pressure – the craziest, tensest thing ever. You know, you’re going up against eight people in wigs, you know?... I mean, they’re totally nervous. I didn’t have any wigs. I didn’t have nothin’, man. I just – I didn’t have my guitar, you know? What they did was – they carry like – Lorne’s in the audience and you could see Lorne and he’s like an idol to me, you know? And the more I get to know him the more I want to be like him, you know? And he’s in the audience and Marci Klein, you know, you could see her and – I think there was, like, six writers. But they wire you up – the audio guy comes in and he’s nervous. He’s, like, “Good luck, you know, way to go.” It’s like, “Aw man, he gets me nervous.” Then everyone keeps coming and telling me, “Look, Lorne’s not gonna laugh. He’s seen it all, you know? It’s 24 years he’s been doing this and, you know, so don’t get discouraged if he’s not laughing at you ‘cause he’s seen it all.” And then you get onstage and I said – you know what I said? I said, “I’m not gonna…” Well, here’s what happened. I was gonna go onstage and they said, “Jimmy, can you wait? We promised this guy he can go on ahead of you. I’m sorry to do this to you.” I said, “No problem.” This guy walks by with a keyboard and, like, a box of wigs and I said, “That’s it. How can I follow this?” So I said, “It’s all over. Just enjoy it while you’re up there.” (laughing) So I said, What I’m gonna do is, I’m not gonna waste anymore time. I’m not gonna say hello, how are you? You know, I’m just gonna go in and do it. I walked up onstage, I said, “Alright. Let’s do this.” And he said, “Well, wait! Wait! We gotta – we’re, you know, taping it on camera here, so, give us a five count or something.” So I said, “Well, no one told me about a five count!” (chuckles) So then I just went into it. I said, “Five, four, three…” and it turns out it was a live feed to Burbank. So Warren Littlefield was watching and all these other, you know, NBC execs and I didn’t know that. Thank God they didn’t tell me that. So I just did it –
BIANCULLI: Oh, because that would have made it a pressure situation?!
FALLON: It would have made me more nervous, sure. I thought it was just, like, a videotape I’d sit at home and watch. You know, auditions. I’ve done those before. But yeah –
BIANCULLI: Was it done on the stage at 8H?
FALLON: On the actual stage. Studio 8H, you walk through the big doors, the classic ones you’ve seen. I was almost, like, crying, I’m like, “Wow, I was on the stage where Steve Martin did, like, you know, classic monologues that I could, you know, recite word for word.” And I was out of control. It was the most greatest, emotional moment of my life. I was, like, it was nuts! It was, like, you’re onstage with the lights and, you know? I couldn’t even describe it to you… I actually was there and I was, like, “I can’t wait to tell my friends. Even if I don’t get this, I’m actually on the stage, in front of Lorne Michaels.”
BIANCULLI: Now how old were you when this happened?
BIANCULLI: Ok. So you get on there, and you’ve gotta be juiced as hell.
BIANCULLI: Was there a moment -- was there an early joke where you got a response from somebody or something where you relaxed or you suddenly realized “This is going well!”
FALLON: Yeah. I did Seinfeld first and I got some reaction and I think I did Travolta next [actually, it was the other way around], and it was just kind of – it was decent. It was pretty, you know, solid. But then I did Adam Sandler. And I remember because –
BIANCULLI: (laughing) Kinda ballsy.
FALLON: Yeah. Exactly. My manager was like, “Well, you know what? If you think you can do Sandler, do it.” My manager was very good with me. I went over the audition with her many times. She said, “You know what? If you think you should do it, you do a great impression, do it. I don’t think anyone else, you know, would think to do it.” And I remember I did Adam Sandler and Lorne started laughing. And it was, like (makes a sort of gasping sound) – It was so amazing. Like, he put his head in his hands, you know, or one hand, like, covered his face, you know? And then he turned to one of the writers and he was laughing. And I was like, “Oh my God”
BIANCULLI: You got a laugh.
FALLON: Like, I could – Yeah, I made Lorne Michaels laugh. In the building where – doing Adam Sandler. In the building where he made Adam Sandler famous, you know? And it was, like, “God!” It was too perfect for me, like. Just those little things that, like, I will remember, like, forever. (laughs) You know? Like I will keep talking about them. I remember that happening and, he was just – it was just, like, that right there was – I said to myself, “You know what? No matter what happens, I got a great story to tell people.”
BIANCULLI: Yeah. When I talk to older comedians and they talk about their first time on The Tonight Show and what Carson did if they got a wave, if they got a wink, if they got a call over –
BIANCULLI: That moment is frozen for them, forever. It’s this huge deal. So it’s got to be that same thing for a next generation.
FALLON: Yeah, you’re right. I mean, that’s a great example. I mean, that’s the one thing that, like – for them it’s Carson. They love this guy. They idolize this guy. This is like – Lorne Michaels who I’ve – I just get nervous just seeing him, you know?
BIANCULLI: So let’s finish the audition. You do The Cure, you do all the music stuff –
FALLON: Yeah. I think I finished Alanis Morissette and then I said, “Thank you very much” and I just left. And as soon as I walked out, [SNL producer] Marci Klein followed me and said, “I just want to tell you, that was, like, one of the best auditions I’ve seen. You did a great job. You should be very proud of yourself.” And I was, like, that was just awesome.ON GETTING THE 'SNL' JOB:
BIANCULLI: So how long before you found out?
FALLON: Of course they let you wait, like, a week. So I, like, grew a beard and I was like 400 pounds. I Brian Wilson’ed it up. And I was hangin’ out and I was, like, you know, What’s gonna happen?
BIANCULLI: And every time the phone rings you die?
FALLON: Yeah. (laughing) I kept calling my manager. I said, “Anybody call yet? Should you call them?” She’s like, “Alright. Leave me alone. You gotta stop.”
BIANCULLI: So how did you find out?
FALLON: So they called and said, “You know what? Lorne is flying out to L.A., he wants to meet with you.” I was like, “This is outta control!” I couldn’t even believe it. I called my parents, I’m like, “Lorne wants to meet with me.” And then I’m at the Paramount lot and I walked on the lot and I saw Molly Shannon – she was there for some other reason and she said, “Hey. I heard about your audition, you know. Don’t be nervous. This is all routine. Just good luck. Just go in there and just be yourself…” And he let me wait for, like, two hours, which is legendary. I think Chris Farley waited eight hours. Like, I feel honored that I only waited two. (laughs) But I knew I was gonna wait two hours –
BIANCULLI: Do you pack a lunch? What do you do?
FALLON: You know what? For some odd reason, even though I’ve read every book, I didn’t bring anything. So I just kinda drank, like, eighty Cokes and got really nervous, you know, in the lobby. And then finally they said, “Lorne’s – You can go on in.” And I walk in, the whole room’s white, to me was, like, perfect, you know? It was like heaven. (laughs) Everything’s white, and it was, like, weird and I was like, “Wow. This is so cool.” And he was, like, “How are ya?” And I think the first thing he said to me, like, I think he said something like, “Have you ever worn wigs?” or something like that. Or “Have you ever tried…wigs with characters?” I was, like, “I haven’t but…,” and my hair was pretty spiked, “You know I do this to my hair. I can do something different.” He was like, “Oh I know that!” He goes, “Well, we want you for the show.” Yeah. Everything was silent and I could, like, hear the lights buzzing, you know? (laughs) And it was just – I was just flabbergasted. I didn’t know what to say. I was totally speechless.
BIANCULLI: What did you say?
FALLON: I think –
BIANCULLI: Eventually you’ve got to say thanks, or yes, or something.
FALLON: Yeah. I mean, I remember – Right there is, like, when I kinda blacked out. I remember on my way out I said, you know, “I’m gonna make you…I wanna make you proud… that you hired me. I’ll do a good job.”ON TELLING HIS PARENTS ABOUT THE ‘SNL’ JOB:
FALLON: As soon as I got home I called – I waited, you know, until they were both home. I got them both on the phone and I told them. I said, “I just got…Saturday Night Live” and, like, they just went nuts. They were screaming on the phone, like, they blew my speaker on my phone (laughing), you know? My mom went nuts. (imitates Mom screaming) “Oh My God!” And my dad would go – they were clapping and – They’re great parents. Very supportive all the way through. My dad used to drive me to do my comedy gigs, you know, when I couldn’t drive, you know.
BIANCULLI: That’s not easy driving, either.
FALLON: Yeah. I mean, like – He was – They were very supportive, you know, through all of it and it was just, like, a really emotional thing, seeing that they’re fans of the show, too, and they know how much I loved it.ON HIS FIRST SHOW:
BIANCULLI: So you got to get them in as guests for the season opener, I'm sure.
FALLON: (laughs) Yeah. Yeah.
BIANCULLI: Because if you don’t do that for your parents, you’re disowned.
BIANCULLI: Opening night. What was that week like and what was that night like?
FALLON: You know what? It was Cameron Diaz and Smashing Pumpkins [Sept. 26, 1998]. I’ll never forget. And what I was doing was – Gilbert Gottfried was my big impression and that was my big thing on the show. That was all I had. And I told my parents – I told my sister and everyone to watch – If my name came up as a featured player then I was guaranteed to be in. So I said, “If my name’s not in the credits, I’m probably not in the show.” And for some odd reason, they didn’t run my name in the credits.
BIANCULLI: So they were relaxed…
FALLON: Yeah but they were sad. They were like, (sigh) “He didn’t do it.” It was almost like Mighty Casey at the Bat. So there was no joy in Mudville. Everyone was like, (sigh) “Boy, that’s a sad one.” So they’re watching the show so, you know, my big part comes on with the Hollywood Squares, and it collapses and they’re still playing the game. (laughs) So, you know, my parents were in the audience and my sister was there, too, actually –
BIANCULLI: Older or younger?
FALLON: One year older. She’s 25.
BIANCULLI: That’s great. What’s your sister’s name?
FALLON: Gloria Fallon… You know, I called her actually before the audition from the hotel. I’m gonna go into the audition, you know, in an hour. She was there for me. And after my first show, afterwards they came to my dressing room and just, like, hugged me and I was just hugging my mom and crying, you know. My dad was, like, “It was great…” They’re very supportive. I have very supportive parents and my sister was – we were, like, best friends. We’re really close.
BIANCULLI: So was it fun?
FALLON: It was out of control. And then, of all people, [L.A. Improv owner] Budd Friedman came to the show who was, like – he helped me out. So it’s crazy, like, you know – when I was, like, hungry he used to, like, give me meals at The Improv. Like, if you do a slot at The Improv, you get paid eight dollars and twenty-five cents but you also get a free meal. So if I was gonna work there, my parents loved it because, like, He’s eating! You know? They loved Budd Friedman. He was like my foster dad when I was in L.A. So I saw him there. I was, like, Wow! He was, like, “Congratulations. Way to go.” He was like, “I always knew it.” So it was kind of – it was really cool that he was there. And we all went out and, like, it was packed, I remember that – like, packed with people and celebrities and Seinfeld was walking around and, you know, my parents got to talk to Seinfeld. And he was very cool with them. And Cameron Diaz was great with my parents. And it was just – it felt really good, like, wow. Like, you know, it’s all happening.ON HIS MUSICAL PARODIES:
BIANCULLI: The other thing I really remember about you in terms of your early stuff, is the first time you were on “Update” with the guitar.
FALLON: That was crazy.
BIANCULLI: And you could – as a viewer – I don’t know what it was like in the studio, it had to be even neater, but coming through the TV screen, you could tell the audience just amping it up almost exponentially in terms of how much they were loving what you were doing.
FALLON: The story behind that is, no one really – like, they had writers and stuff, they kind of – no one really thought it would work. They kind of dismissed it, like, “All right. We’ll give it a shot. Go ahead and do this.” You know, that’s why I was, like…middle in the list of – there was someone following me after that in “Update.” So they kind of said, “Ah, give it a shot.” And in dress rehearsal we did it and it went over really well. Like, it was insane. And I was, like, and Colin [Quinn, then the host of ‘Update”] was like, “Wow. That was pretty good.” The first, you know, a minute to live show – it was only my fourth show [Oct. 24, 1998] – And I’m, like, just do it. You gotta have guts and confidence. Just do this, you know, and I did and they went doubly crazy. And it was, like – I remember, like, I was so nervous and Colin was looking at me like “Can you believe this?” I looked at him like, “I can’t believe…” and he’s like, “Just enjoy it, man, do it up, you know.” I remember I just couldn’t stop smiling (laughing) because it was, like, amazing. I was like – I wrote all that – I can’t believe this is happening! I love this show so much but I was thinking, like, if I was at home laughing – this guy doing these songs – I would love this guy. I would be, like, “Yeah! This guy is totally cool and, like, …it’s cool. The guy’s brand new, he’s got no – nobody knows who he is, you know?” He doesn’t want to force himself on anybody. He comes in and he does this thing and it’s, like, it gets a good reaction. That’s one of my favorite – that’s my favorite moment.
BIANCULLI: Do you remember which songs you parodied?
FALLON: Yeah. Yeah. It was Halloween songs. I did matchbox 20, and then it was Marcy Playground, the song was “Sex and Candy,” and then I closed with Alanis Morissette and she was on the show. Which was –
BIANCULLI: What did she say to you?
FALLON: She was the best! She came up to me and she was, like, “I loved it!” She goes, “That was so funny!” She goes, “My whole band was laughing and everyone loved it.” She goes, “It was really sweet.” I was, like, “Good for Alanis Morissette! I love her now!” Now she’s my favorite.
BIANCULLI: Now, Colin – it really did seem like you guys had eye contact during that first one where you both were realizing something was really going on there. What did the head writers that didn’t believe in it beforehand say to you afterwards?
FALLON: I mean, everyone just, like, “Way to go, man…” What can you say? It’s, like, it was fun. It was fun for anyone who was in the studio and then, you know, everyone was just like kind of – I remember everyone was just smiling, like, “Great job, man. You did it”… And I remember Ben Stiller was – he shook my hand, too. And he was the host. And he loved it. He was like, “That was awesome.” That was, like, my best show, I think.ON DREAMING OF STARRING ON ‘SNL,' THEN DOING IT:
BIANCULLI: Now tell me about the impact of Saturday Night Live from your perspective. After you do what you consider your best show ever, after that show, who do you hear from in terms of old friends or strangers or what’s the reaction. How do you know where this show is reaching?
FALLON: It’s great. I get fan mail – which is a weird, cool thing – so fan mail started coming, like, from Canada. I was just like, “Dude, look at this, man.”
BIANCULLI: International fan mail.
FALLON: (laughing) You know the red, white and blue envelopes? I remember that. I’m like, “God! They can hear me in Canada!” This is crazy.
BIANCULLI: As long as you’re not getting a lot of prison mail, you’re okay.
FALLON: I did get that! Letters from prison, they said, “Hey, I’m writing to people I like on TV. Please draw a picture of yourself and send it to me. I was tempted to draw a picture of myself behind bars" and, like, “This is how you see me,” you know? “There you go. Here’s your drawing.” But I didn’t write him back but I hung up all the letters on my wall, because that’s what I would do. I mean, I would write the show a year ago. So I was kind of psyched that I was getting fan mail. Then I would get the old messages from people from home. A lot of times, like, ‘You’re a jerk! I can’t believe…” You know, being nice. They’re like, “You should pay them to be on the show! You’re the guy that wouldn’t leave the dorm room to watch the show. You’re the idiot that made me watch everything," you know, whatever – because I’d show stuff in my room.
BIANCULLI: You would host retrospectives?
FALLON: Oh totally. I’d be, like, all right here’s the best of the season, according to me. And I’d show them all the sketches and they’d love it! But, like…my whole thing was – I think when I was watching, I was, like, if Dana Carvey ever gets sick, I’m gonna go in. Like Lorne’s gonna call me. He has no idea who I am –
BIANCULLI: I’m on standby, yeah.
FALLON: He’d call me out of nowhere, in Saugerties, NY, and say, “Hey Jimmy. Dana’s sick. Can you come in and do the church lady?” (laughs) So after that, I’d get calls from that, my manager calls me. It’s like – that was the show that really opened it all up. And for the audition, I really said, “You know what? I’m going to give 100%, you know? I’m just gonna go in, just do what I think is funny and see if people like it. And it was great."
BIANCULLI: You really do seem like a real student of this. Who’s the best example of what SNL tries to be, in terms of all-time host or performer? Who do you think of first?
FALLON: Steve Martin.
FALLON: I think he, like – I think Saturday Night Live is, like, a mix between, like, rock-n-roll and comedy. It’s cool like rock-n-roll, you know, it’s loud and it’s funny. It’s…entertaining. …It’s something you can watch again and again like a song or something. And Steve Martin is like rock-n-roll kind of… He used to play the banjo and he used to, you know – He used to, like, get screams from the crowd, you know? I love that. I love that type of humor and that type of fun. It’s, like, live, it’s so raw and it’s, like, it’s just, like, sweat, you know? You get out there and just go nuts. …That’s what I love. That’s when I love comedy. When people are, like, sweating and into it, and they’re in the groove and they know they’re doing well…
BIANCULLI: It’s so much fun. I really have enjoyed talking to you because you – I’m glad that the enthusiasm that you show on TV actually is genuine.
FALLON: I’m just – I’m so thankful – I don’t think people even, like, understand when the show’s live. I think they assume it’s taped and so – That’s why I think, like, it’s not as much of a novelty, you know, because everyone in the world is watching it now… I think people have forgotten that it’s actually live. It’s like the old Milton Berle days. …This is the only live TV around now!
BIANCULLI: And it juices up through the set so it’s got to be so much fun in that studio.
FALLON: (excitedly) It’s, like, the greatest adrenaline rush in the whole world.http://www.tvworthwatching.com/BlogPostDetails.aspx?postId=6900