Jimmy Fallon Logs In to Late Night

During his first three shows as the new host of NBC’s Late Night, former Saturday Night Live star Jimmy Fallon has invited audience members to lick a lawnmower for ten bucks, has engaged in a dance-off with Cameron Diaz, and has drawn attention to a made-up series of “bromance novels” with titles like Matchin’ Tats and Keg Stand At Connor’s Ridge. And whether because of the novelty factor or because of an unexpected reserve of goodwill for the new host, the unrepentant fratboy humor of the new Late Night With Jimmy Fallon has pulled in respectable ratings, outpacing CBS’s Craig Ferguson and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel by roughly 25%.

Most critics have avoided slamming Fallon’s early performances outright; Entertainment Weekly‘s Ken Tucker suggested the comic “relax,” while The Washington Post‘s notoriously cranky Tom Shales wrote, “The opening night had its disappointments, but none were fatal.” So now that Late Night With Jimmy Fallon has established itself as unspectacular-but-not-disastrous, the next step will be for Fallon and his writers to forge a one-of-a-kind identity, the way David Letterman and Conan O’Brien did when they hosted Late Night. Letterman openly mocked show business conventions, and introduced a generation to irony, while O’Brien turned the show into a forum for his own puckish absurdity. For now, Fallon is late night’s most tech-savvy, pop culture savant. In his first three nights on the job, Fallon has done comedy bits built around Facebook (imagining the status updates of audience members), Twitter (pulling questions for Diaz from Fallon’s feed) and YouTube (spotlighting a nutty foreign video), and while none have exactly killed, Fallon’s proven that he’s genuinely plugged in to what’s going on with the young folks. At the least, he can use a term like “bromance” and not sound like he heard it the first time earlier that day.

Will Fallon’s youth give him enough of an edge in the long-term? Maybe so; but only if he can curb some of his ungainliness. Fallon has a bad habit of rushing and slurring his words when he gets excited. He’s been swallowing his punchlines during the opening monologue-though the jokes haven’t been that funny to begin with-and in his interviews with old friends like Diaz, Justin Timberlake and Billy Crudup, Fallon has sometimes gotten so excited that he’s failed to finish sentences (or to understand that there’s an audience watching that can barely follow the conversation). Late Night With Jimmy Fallon looks slicker and classier than either O’Brien’s or Letterman’s version of the show, and the musical component-from the deep funk of house band The Roots to the clever, club-like audience-members-on-stage set-up for performances by Santigold and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah-has been top-drawer. But while Fallon is amiable enough and quick with funny ad-libs, he’s not yet a host. He looks like he wants to leap over his desk and sit in the guest chair, where he can riff all he wants then head home during the commercial.