There were no surprises at 30 Rock today as NBC announced the new host of Late Night when current host Conan O’Brien decamps to 11:30 PM sometime in 2009. As far back as February 2007, Bill Carter, The New York Times‘ veteran TV reporter and de facto historian of late night, had been reporting that Saturday Night Live alum Jimmy Fallon would be tapped to host the show. As reporters and film crews assembled on the 67th floor to take their lucite seats in a room with floor-to-ceiling windows dramatically framing a rainy, overcast day, Fallon’s name was openly bandied about.
Standing in front of a purple backdrop of New York’s skyline with the words “NBC LATE NIGHT” written in the glow of a klieg light, Mr. Fallon looked nervous. Standing beside him was his old SNL boss and now executive producer, Lorne Michaels. Moments earlier, Mr. Michaels had been described by Marc Graboff, Co-Chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios, as having “probably the greatest eye for talent in history.” The beneficiary of that great and historic eye, Mr. Fallon, 33, was wearing a black suit and shiny tie, his hair looking freshly cut like a high schooler’s on picture day. His leg was jiggling.
The crowd had just sat through a three-minute highlight reel of Mr. Fallon’s SNL career, featuring “some of the most memorable characters in the history of Saturday Night Live,” according to Ben Silverman, Co-Chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios. (NBC’s President and CEO, Jeff Zucker, was present, but did not speak.) The clip reel was heavy in impersonations of people like Pat O’Brien, Howard Stern, Larry King, and Jerry Seinfeld. The journalists sat mostly stone-faced (a bad sign), except when Fallon appeared as himself (a good sign), interviewing Paris Hilton and offering one-liners as part of ‘Weekend Update’ alongside Tina Fey. The biggest laugh came from Mr. Fallon’s signature bit, “The Barry Gibb Talk Show,” in which Mr. Fallon and Justin Timberlake (as Robin Gibb) quavered and danced their way through impersonations of the BeeGees. Not included: Any clips of Mr. Fallon laughing during a bit, something that prompted co-star Tracy Morgan to gripe last September, “That’s taking all the attention off of everybody else and putting it on you, like, ‘Oh, look at me, I’m the cute one.'”
No one could complain today that all the attention was on Mr. Fallon as he answered questions from reporters. He told the crowd that he’d recently started performing standup comedy again (“which is sad”) to improve his timing, which was evident in the loose, glib way he answered questions: Asked what he’d be paid for the job, he said, “I keep asking Lorne and he says not to worry about it. I just wanna live comfortably,” beat, “in Dubai.” He occasionally resorted to the classic standup comic crutch of picking on a single audience member—in this case, a reporter in the front row who seemingly laughed at the wrong time—but his banter tended toward self-effacement and crowd-winning modesty. “I’m not gonna reinvent the wheel with the talk show format. I think that there’s no need to.”
Mr. Fallon claimed his kindergarten yearbook featured his photo above the caption “Most Likely to Take Over David Letterman.” (Someone in the crowd, possibly auditioning to be Mr. Fallon’s sidekick, let out an audible “Wow” at this point.) When asked what kindergarten had yearbooks, much less ones with references to David Letterman, Mr. Fallon joked, “It’s a magical kindergarten. It’s taught by a unicorn, a talking unicorn.” Getting serious, he said, it was St. Mary of the Snow School in Saugerties, NY. A quick call to the school and a chat with Principal Christine Molinelli (who was not principal when Mr. Fallon was a student) didn’t turn up the Letterman line from his kindergarten year (at that age, students appear in class photos only, according to Principal Molinelli), but his eighth grade yearbook photo from 1988 featured the line “Future Goal: To be an Entertainer.”
Pressed about exactly when the handover from Conan O’Brien to Mr. Fallon would happen (and, additionally, when Jay Leno would depart from The Tonight Show, making room for Mr. O’Brien), Mr. Michaels said it would be “sometime in ’09. Probably the first six months; possibly the second six months.” Mr. Silverman confirmed, saying, “We have no idea.”
Mr. Michaels said he hoped the transition would be less bumpy than when David Letterman left NBC for CBS and Mr. O’Brien was plucked from the writers room of The Simpsons (and, earlier, SNL) to become the new host of Late Night. “I think this is a more planned and orderly transition,” he said. “Jimmy is known and already liked and I think that will make it easier.”
Mr. Michaels said that being a talk show host is “really the definition of overexposure,” to which Mr. Fallon appeared to blanch slightly. “If you’re good at it,” Mr. Fallon said, “It’s the last job you’ll ever have.”
Perhaps sensing a double meaning, the crowd burst into laughter.