The naming of Jimmy Fallon as the next host of “The Tonight Show” is as just as big a deal for him as it is for his co-star: New York.
When Fallon replaces Jay Leno next year, he’ll be operating out of a new studio at 30 Rock – both solidifying and reestablishing the city’s role as TV’s center of late night comedy more than 40 years after Johnny Carson and Co. took “Tonight” to Burbank.
The NBC shift means two of the three major network 11:30 p.m. entertainment shows – “The Tonight Show” and “Late Show with David Letterman” – will be based in New York. That’s not to mention “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report” and “Saturday Night Live,” which brought after-hours humor back to the then-struggling city in 1975, three years post-Carson.
Not to knock the West Coast, but there’s a vibrant, unique energy New York infuses into shows that thrive or flop on studio audience reaction. The edginess that made “SNL” an instant and enduring hit owes much to its “live-from-New-York” ethos, from the opening montage of city scenes to local crowds that demand laughs be hard earned.
Letterman, from his early days as NBC morning host and later as the first to helm “Late Night,” intuited this and regularly took to city streets for comedy segments (remember his visit to “Just Bulbs?”). After signing with CBS, Letterman could have established his new show anywhere he wanted. But he spearheaded the renovation of the Ed Sullivan Theater and made the streets outside an extension of his Broadway studio – dropping watermelons from the roof, playing tennis on 53rd Street and expanding his comedy troupe to include local characters like Rupert Jee, Sirajul Islam and Mujibar Rahman.
When Conan O'Brien replaced Letterman on “Late Night” two decades ago, he maintained the tradition of casting the city – particularly in those great early bits where his desk transformed into a car, and he and Andy Richter would “drive” through nearby streets. Perhaps the funniest segment on O’Brien’s edition of “Late Night” came when Triumph the Insult Comic Dog tormented “Star Wars” geeks gathered outside the Ziegfeld Theatre in 2002 while awaiting “Attack of the Clones.”
Sure, O’Brien’s still funny in Los Angeles, but there’s a mellower vibe in the studio – and out. Ditto for Leno’s “Jaywalking” bit and Jimmy Kimmel’s entertaining ventures around a city that, through no fault of its own, just isn’t New York.
The Brooklyn-born Fallon knows the value of his hometown as a co-star, as does his producer, “SNL” mastermind Lorne Michaels, a Canadian who is one of the city’s most valued citizens.
Kimmel, O’Brien, Chelsea Handler and Craig Ferguson seem likely to stay in Los Angeles. It’s unclear who will replace Fallon on “Late Night” or whether the show will remain in New York.
It’s also unclear which coast will get the last laugh. But at least for “Tonight,” New York is finally once again ahead in the geographic offshoot of the late night TV comedy wars.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.