Jimmy Fallon’s first-ever episode as host of The Tonight Show, which aired on Monday, opened with a surprisingly heartfelt and sincere tribute to how much the new job meant to him, as well as a lengthy list of all of the people who’d made him who he is. It was a little overlong, and it presumed that the audience was interested in everything that had brought Fallon to this point. But it was sweet, and the way it meandered only made it more so.
This was immediately followed by Fallon being re-introduced by announcer Steve Higgins and launching into his monologue. The first joke was about the United States’ narrow win over the Russians in hockey last weekend. Its punchline? “The American team said that they’re thrilled with the win, while the Russian team is missing.” Sadly, it was one of the funnier monologue jokes of Fallon’s first week of shows, and he largely repeated it a few nights later with yet another joke about the Russian hockey team underperforming.
The disparity between that guileless wonder and the utterly tired joke that followed it spoke to all of the promise and all of the potential pitfalls of a Fallon-hosted Tonight Show. All late-night talk shows take a little while to settle into their grooves. Even something as seemingly innocuous as the host of one show—Late Night With Jimmy Fallon—moving down the hall to host a show that airs one hour earlier can cause seismic ripples through that series’ staff and writers. Conan O’Brien struggled with many of the same questions when he took over for Jay Leno on The Tonight Show in 2009, and if O’Brien struggled to know how weird is too weird for a larger audience, then Fallon will bump up against earnest whimsy’s limitations in attracting viewers to late-night television.
Yet it’s hard to know how much of the lackluster first week of Fallon’s Tonight Show can be written off to those early jitters and how much of it is just the host himself, who is an appealing presence but also more or less Jay Leno repackaged for millennials. If Leno appealed to baby boomers with his ultra-condescending punching down at dumbass rubes, then Fallon appeals to the supposedly super-sincere up-and-coming generation with his earnest gags and desire not to make waves. The biggest problem with Leno was always that his jokes were needlessly cruel. Fallon will never have that problem, and in that regard, he’s a considerable step up for the program. But the two share one other overriding problem: Their humor is too predictable, and it lacks teeth.
This was fine for Fallon on Late Night because Late Night has always been a more experimental program, one where the individual host could warp and twist the program to his own whims. For Fallon, this meant chasing the viral-video audience and indulging in a fair amount of quirk. The strongest thing in Fallon’s favor has always been that he’s a gregarious host, coming up with shows that create the impression the audience is getting to hang out with celebrities in their own living rooms. But he also loves things like musical numbers and dumb sketch comedy, and in its own way, his Late Night could be very charming when it was firing on all cylinders.
The Tonight Show, however, carries with it a storied history and expectations. It’s the kind of show that can’t be so easily twisted and warped to fit its host. Instead, the host and the show meet halfway, at best, and come up with a solution that fits the host but doesn’t dishonor the show’s history: hipster cousin Steve Allen; cool and detached grandpa Johnny Carson; jackass uncle Leno. Fallon fits into that dichotomy as a sort of older brother who’d really like to get everybody together just this once, because it would make mom and dad happy. There’s a way to make that work within the more stringent requirements of The Tonight Show, but Fallon hasn’t found it just yet.
So mostly, he spent his first week floundering. He constantly repeated the name “Harry Styles” as if it were funny in and of itself. (David Letterman can get away with this kind of thing because he’s daring the audience to laugh at what he finds stupidly amusing; Fallon is less able to create that relationship with viewers.) Every episode was crammed full of comedy bits that existed, apparently, just to pop up as videos on YouTube and went on too long. (Even the much vaunted bit where numerous celebrities came out to give Fallon the $100 they owed him for a supposed bet that he’d never host The Tonight Show dragged on and on and on. Its only joke was, “Can you believe Jimmy Fallon knows all these people?”) The worst of these was Thursday night’s sketch, “Ew,” in which Fallon and Will Ferrell dressed up like teen girls and talked to Michelle Obama with exaggerated glottal fry for what felt like hours. The sketch had no jokes beyond “weird voices,” and no structure. It was, essentially, pointless.
There were occasional funny moments. Kristen Wiig put in an appearance “as” Harry Styles, and she and Fallon had fun with the interview. Fallon and Higgins’ chemistry remains terrific. The show has revealed that the Roots aren’t just TV’s best house band but also solid go-tos for comic bits. The week was filled with technically impressive stunts, like shooting U2 atop Rockefeller Center. And the set itself is a surprisingly great construction, offering up plenty of spaces to go for skits or musical performances.
But at least so far, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon is primarily selling itself as the “isn’t it cool that celebrities exist?” version of the late-night talk show. Fallon’s strengths have never been in the monologue (which was weak even in his Late Night days) or even as an interviewer—he can be far too obsequious to his guests. Instead, he excels when he can create a warm, friendly environment where the stars appear to be ready to genuinely talk with him (and, by extension, viewers), friend to friend. There was a bit of that in Fallon’s first week of shows—like in a game of charades featuring Tim McGraw, Emma Thompson, and Bradley Cooper—but too much of the show ended up feeling like Fallon was his immediate predecessor in friendlier clothes. Maybe he’ll figure his way out with a few weeks under his belt—and a network that’s no longer insisting he promote the Olympics at every turn. But if he doesn’t, “being a nice guy” probably won’t be enough to keep him from being devoured by the very show he’s hosting.