A few weeks back in my four-part Top 20 Programs of 2014 series I designated NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” as the Program of the Year. As the Fallon-ized version of “Tonight” charges toward its first anniversary (February 17) it’s good to see that it isn’t losing any of that first year magic and still feels as fresh and new as it did twelve months ago. (Click on the pictures below to see why.)
Consider the treats Fallon and his team have delivered this week, when the show has been more entertaining than anything else on television. Granted, it has been an atypical few days, with the show being telecast from Phoenix very late on Sunday night after the Super Bowl and then moving over to Los Angeles for a series of shows from the city “Tonight” called home for over 40 years (beginning with Johnny Carson’s decision to take it from Manhattan to Burbank circa 1972).
It was difficult to tell on Sunday’s show which segment was more fun: Celebrity Photobomb with Chris Pratt and Chris Evans (pictured above); or the a cappella performance of “We are the Champions” by Fallon, the Roots, Carrie Underwood, Sam Smith, Ariana Grande, Blake Shelton, Usher, Meghan Trainor, One Direction and Christina Aguilera presented in the same format as the iconic opening credits of “The Brady Bunch” (pictured below), or the epic Lip Sync Battle with Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart and Fallon (with a surprise guest appearance by Drew Barrymore).
On Monday – his first night in Los Angeles – Fallon started things off with a “Saturday Night Live”-worthy riff on the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” theme song titled “The Fresh Host of Tonight.”
On Tuesday Fallon, dressed and sounding like Neil Young, performed the Neil Young classic “Old Man” (as seen below) with the man himself. It was yet another reminder, as if it were needed, that Fallon is a master at impersonating famous singers and a talented performer in his own right.
Tuesday also featured another “Password” sketch (with Fallon, Ellen DeGeneres, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell). If I had to choose I would pick the resurrection of this classic game show as a recurring bit as my favorite element of the new “Tonight.”
For those of us with long and cherished memories of “Tonight” dating all the way back to the Johnny Carson era, perhaps the coolest thing about Tuesday’s show was the return to “Tonight” after 22 years of its long-time bandleader Doc Severinsen, who sat in for the night with The Roots. It is Fallon and his team’s unending respect for the full history of “Tonight” that continues to impress me more than anything else. That was evident right from Fallon’s very first show, when one-time permanent guest host Joan Rivers (who was famously banned from “Tonight” by Johnny Carson and never invited back by his successor Jay Leno) was included among the cavalcade of celebrities who welcomed Fallon and the show back to New York City. Fallon later had Rivers on as a guest – her first extended appearance on “Tonight” since the Eighties. Fallon also hosted Barbra Streisand’s first “Tonight” show appearance in 50 years. (Apparently she never appeared on it during its four-decade run in L.A.) Even Leno stopped by to be interviewed by Fallon, keeping it all in the family.
But it was Wednesday night’s show that really sealed the deal. It should have been enough for Fallon to welcome as guests Carl Reiner, Vin Diesel, Kobe Bryant, Jennifer Hudson and Iggy Azalea – but he trumped himself with an extended sketch early in the hour in which he revealed that he went to fictional Bayside High, the school setting for the cheesy Saturday morning classic “Saved By the Bell.” Seconds later he was on the old “Saved” set, mixing it up with five of the stars of the show recreating their characters: Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Zack, Mario Lopez as Slater, Elizabeth Berkley as Jessie, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen as Kelly and Dennis Haskins as Principal Belding (pictured above). There were all kinds of jokes about Jimmy wanting to move to New York City, work on “Saturday Night Live” and one day host a talk show, and the unlikelihood of Jessie becoming a stripper.
I appreciate the great work that David Letterman has done in late night since the early Nineties, and it has not escaped me that Jimmy Kimmel has upped his game and made his YouTube channel as dynamic as Fallon’s. But there is something about the particular blend of current popular culture, joyful nostalgia and respect for that which has come before – filtered through Fallon’s almost manic fan-boy enthusiasm for everything about entertainment (including sports) – that has transformed “Tonight” into something extraordinary.
Once upon a time this new “Tonight” would have been one of those all too rare shows that people were advised to follow obsessively lest they miss something great. There’s no fear of missing much of anything in the digital age, but there is still something to be said for seeing whatever Fallon and his team have put together at the earliest possible moment rather than waiting to play catch up the following day. It is the very essence of Must-See TV.
Ed Martin is the Editor of Planet Ed and MediaBizBloggers and the television and video critic for MyersBizNet. Follow him on Twitter at @PlanetEd.
Check us out on Facebook at MediaBizBloggers.com
Follow our Twitter updates at @MediaBizBlogger
The opinions and points of view expressed in this commentary are exclusively the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of MediaBizBloggers.com management or associated bloggers. MediaBizBloggers is an open thought leadership platform and readers may share their comments and opinions in response to all commentaries.