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America Has Changed Since 2014. The Tonight Show Hasn’t.

Why Jimmy Fallon is no longer No. 1, or even No. 2, in late night.
  • Jimmy Fallon plays "Egg Russian Roulette" with guest Jon Hamm on a recent episode of The Tonight Show. (Photo: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC)
    Jimmy Fallon plays "Egg Russian Roulette" with guest Jon Hamm on a recent episode of The Tonight Show. (Photo: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC)

    Remember when the new kid arrived on the late-night scene? He was a phenomenon! Everyone, it seemed, was staying up late to watch him. The hottest stars, the coolest band, the moments that went viral the next day. It was more of a party than a talk show. The host was eager to please, and his audience — the young tastemakers that advertisers coveted — adored him. Ratings were through the roof. The kid was making the late-night host on the other channel look old … really old. That host soon announced his retirement.

    But then, the fizz started to go out of the drink. The fresh, funny bits that the phenom was scoring with a few months earlier began to feel stale. The show’s party atmosphere took on the air of forced jollity. Negative reviews started drifting in. Audience started drifting out. Next thing you know, the host on the other channel — the new guy, the one who owed his ascent to the disruption that the phenom caused — now he was the late-night host everyone was talking about.

    And up to this point you think I’m talking about the rise and fall of Jimmy Fallon. Actually, I was thinking about someone else from a different era in late night: Arsenio Hall. Hired as a fill-in on the Fox Late Show in 1988 after the original host, Joan Rivers, was given the boot, this likable comic from Cleveland quickly became a magnet for viewers not served by Johnny Carson or David Letterman, the two other late-night options.

    Arsenio jumped to syndication, won key time slots on CBS stations and became a sensation. Hall was known for his bold signature opening, his on-stage cheering section, his buddy-buddy relationship with seemingly every guest on his show and his conversations about topics important to young viewers.

    As Arsenio conjured up a huge following seemingly out of nothing, people inside NBC started to wonder what Johnny had done for them lately. Dana Carvey did a brutal (and still insanely funny) SNL parody show called “Carsenio,” which infuriated Carson but accurately reflected the industry mood. Shortly after that, Jay Leno’s manager began her successful campaign to get Carson out and her client in.

    The first time I made the connection between Jimmy Fallon and Arsenio Hall was the week Fallon launched as host of The Tonight Show seven years ago. Both men had a prior stint before big debuts — Arsenio as a fill-in on Fox, Fallon as host of the post-Conan O’Brien Late Night show. And they both launched spectacularly.

    There was something irresistible about Jimmy. Celebrities flocked to his studio to play frat party games. His house band The Roots, already the most celebrated music group on late-night TV, effortlessly raised its game. The comedy was brilliant almost despite itself. Reviewer Andy Greenwald watched in awe as Fallon and his sidekick, Steve Higgins, saved a dud joke about McDonald’s and “bent and folded it into a gleefully silly bit about Billy Bob Thornton ordering a McDLT." I watched the first 17 nights of the show, and I too was amazed at how effervescently entertaining it was.

    Letterman had surely hoped that, in the twilight of his network career, and with his rival Leno finally retired for good, he might ascend to No. 1 again and go out on top. Soon it became clear that would never happen. Fallon grew Leno’s lead over Letterman to more than a million viewers, thanks to an influx of young viewers who hadn’t been watching either CBS or NBC. Dave retired a few months into Fallon’s reign and Colbert took his place.

    The question always comes up: What if Jimmy’s people hadn’t booked Donald Trump on The Tonight Show? Or what if Jimmy had just left Trump’s hair alone? It’s a fair question, but I think it's the wrong question. What NBC executives should’ve been asking is: What happens when the party’s over? What happens when viewers get tired of the pumped-up enthusiasm and host calling every guest their “buddy” or “close friend”? What happens when the audience tunes in to a “talk show” expecting, you know, talk, and get a game of Slapjack or Antler Ring Toss instead?

    Arsenio Hall’s people didn’t have an answer, either. And his was a syndicated show, which meant the CBS stations owed him no loyalty. Once his ratings slipped and CBS had signed Letterman, it was game over for Arsenio.

    Jimmy Fallon won’t suffer that fate. Even though The Tonight Show has fallen from No. 1 to No. 3 under his watch, Fallon just signed a new five-year deal with NBC. Jay Leno will not be un-retiring yet again. The current occupant will be the face of late night on the network that invented late night. But that’s not the prize it once was. The evening news is a storied franchise as well, but you try naming the three current network anchors. The audience that used to stay up late now watches its comedy on YouTube — where Fallon’s lead-out, Seth Meyers, gets far more views for most of his videos — and on streaming platforms, where Amber Ruffin, a writer for Meyers, does one 30-minute show a week for Peacock that generates way more buzz than The Tonight Show has in years.

    I recently watched Fallon for the first time in a long time. Nothing’s changed — not the show open, not the monologue where Jimmy cracks himself up for no reason, not the awesomeness of The Roots, not the semi-amusing party games in lieu of something reasonably intelligent. Fallon is on his fourth showrunner in eight years, and the country is on its third president in that time. If people inside NBC thought that getting rid of Trump would mark a new beginning for their late-night star, the ratings tell a different story.

    David Letterman evolved as a host, opening up more about his personal life. Jon Stewart started taking serious pills (maybe too many). Conan adapted and adapted. Kimmel grew into the job. Any of these options are available to Jimmy Fallon. Instead, he shows up at the same club night after night and does the same act, to a shrinking audience, all the while hoping that Dana Carvey doesn’t work up a wicked impression of him.

    The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon airs weeknight at 11:35 PM ET on NBC.

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    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, NBC, The Amber Ruffin Show, The Arsenio Hall Show, Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Arsenio Hall, Conan O'Brien, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon, Johnny Carson, The Roots