I grew up as David Letterman’s career was ascending. When he began his run as a talk show host, it was a great source of pride for fans like me who had followed his career and connected with his unique brand of humor. It was as though he was poking fun at the genre, with quirky, offbeat guests and bizarre comedy skits. It was like one big inside joke that only Dave and his fans were in on. His irreverence self-deprecating approach to a TV show genre that was built on Vegas-like glitz and celebrity worship truly changed the landscape for those who followed.
As Dave’s career winded down, Jimmy Fallon was a worthy newcomer to the late night talk show turf, having proven himself and honed his craft at SNL as a performer, writer, and Weekend Update desk jockey. Fallon’s affinity for music was apparent early on at SNL, as he used his guitar to deliver parody songs and impressions.
I recall watching Fallon’s first show in the “Late, Late” time slot when he first transitioned from SNL. He was clearly feeling his way and exploring the space, still looking slightly self-conscious and uneasy, though the elements of future success were clearly there. Like Letterman before him, he used that time slot where expectations are lower and experimentation is acceptable to find his groove.
As he moved into the “Early Late” time slot, taking over at NBC for Jay Leno, he came in as a confident performer with a clear vision of the format and tools he would use to conquer the new challenge.
And the key to his formula for success? MUSIC.
From the outset, Fallon chose a band that was worthy of the late night talk show platform, as Carson (Doc Severinsen Big Band), Letterman (Paul Shaffer), and Leno (Branford Marsalis and later Kevin Eubanks) had done before him. The Roots, led by Ahmir Khalib “Questlove” Thompson, were an astute choice for the times. The band has hip-hop sensitivities, but with jazz undertones and the musicianship to cross genres and back performers of any style. Their versatility is critical in backing the music-based hijinks of a host who amazingly seems to straddle music generations very adeptly.
Fallon migrates seamlessly from spot-on impressions of 60’s and 70’s classic performers like Neil Young, Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” and Jim Morrison to a “history of rap” medley with Justin Timberlake. And somehow Fallon seems natural and authentic in both settings, a feat that few performers could pull off. He comes across as fun and hip, with a sparkle in his eye that seems to indicate that he can’t believe he’s getting away with it all.
Like the Rat Pack shows in Vegas in the late 50’s and early 60’s, the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon is the coolest, modern-day party that everyone wants to attend. It’s the one that they’ll be talking about the next day.
Fallon recently challenged Ellen DeGeneres to a lip-synch battle judged by Justin Timberlake, another recurring skit on the show. And the fun of music participation lures celebrities who might otherwise foster an aversion to letting their hair down to join in the silliness (see “I Got My Tight Pants On” featuring Jennifer Lopez and Fallon).
But in the context of this blog that espouses the benefits of music education, I’m particularly fond of the skits where Fallon invites a musician with a hit song to join him and his band to create a rendition of the song using only classroom toy musical instruments.
We’ve discussed in this forum the fact that so many music students abandon music when they leave school because excessive marching and drilling associated with band programs leaves them burnt out. We live in an era where the tools for illustrating joy in music have never been greater – loop pedals, vocal harmonizers, multi-track recording software (I have an app with an 8-track digital recorder on my phone) are accessible and inexpensive (or free).
Fallon understands that the importance of music is that it simply provides a universal platform for fun.
And Jimmy Fallon has become the King of late night music.