Fallon Upward

The new Late Night With Jimmy Fallon is a mutant multimedia experience.

Robert DeNiro and Jimmy Fallon on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon

David Letterman seemed crankier than usual Monday night on the Late Show (CBS). He resembled in his crankiness a sour Tom Daschle, the important difference between the two being their eyeglasses. (Whereas one’s are conservatively stylish, the other’s are suitable only for a Danish architect in midlife crisis.) Letterman, despite being but a mere 61, looked as drained as if he’d been working his gig for centuries.

His opening segment seemed wearier yet—almost entirely snowstorm jokes, two of them about the height, or lack thereof, of Michael Bloomberg, another one incoherent. (It was so cold out there that Amy Winehouse’s beehive tried to mate with Donald Trump’s combover?) As is his wont, Letterman punctuated this lame monologue with acknowledgments of its lameness, but these had no bite. Not even guest Katie Couric could perk up Dave. When she bubbled about the fun she has doing a Web-exclusive version of her newscast, he replied by grouching about Internet tie-ins. His only moments of pleasure came in preparing the audience for U2, which is booked for a five-night stand—a counterpunch in the first round of a new fight on the late shift.

If you are sufficiently mindful of television to have made it to this paragraph, then you know perfectly well that Conan O’Brien will soon take over The Tonight Show and that NBC has given the time slot he, and Letterman before him, inhabited to Late Night With Jimmy Fallon (weeknights at 12:35 a.m. ET). Though Fallon—famous from a tenure on Saturday Night Live, infamous for a film career that never achieved liftoff—launched the new show yesterday, he’s had something of a soft opening on the Internet, fooling around with video shorts on his Web site. In last Friday’s, executive producer Lorne Michaels aimed to quiet Fallon’s anxiety about the debut episode: “The worst that can happen is it’s very, very bad.” The way things turned out, it was no worse than rather bad, and Fallon, if he can quit squirming long enough, should take a modest bow.

My, does he squirm. Fallon’s physical presentations of nervousness lent the show its only consistency. After taking the stage and receiving his vigorous applause Dick Cavettishly—”A smart man would leave now”—he wriggled and swayed and shifted his weight from one quaking leg to the other throughout the middling monologue. He settled down for a number called “Slow Jammin’ the News” where he and his house band, the Roots, gave the stimulus package the quiet-storm treatment: “Now bring me that little piece of legislation/ Put it on my docket.” Fallon delivered a faultless wink somewhere in there. Most at ease coasting on his pretty-boy charisma—which itself depends on his jumpy energy—he seems less a comedian than a charming goofball who sometimes manages to be funny. Fallon’s sexy/silly thing—a dialectic, if you want to go there—got projected onto a game-show bit identified as “Lick It for 10,” wherein he handed Hamiltons to audience members willing to run their wet tongues across, for instance, a lawnmower.

The first guest was Robert De Niro, playing “Robert De Niro” dutifully, doing nothing to dispel the feeling that his motive for appearing here was to repay Lorne a favor. The second guest was Justin Timberlake, whose best moment lay in reworking Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” to pay tribute to one of Fallon’s sponsors. The product hawked was Bud Light Lime, which I fear I will have to drink someday at a party when it’s the only thing left in the fridge. Musical guest Van Morrison was in a hopeful mood. Nothing caught fire.

Evidence suggests that Late Night With Jimmy Fallon is not a normal talk show—or even an abnormal talk show in the self-ironic tradition Letterman pioneered—but a mutant multimedia experience, part chatfest and part reality show. It is an R&D attempt to reinvent the format for the way we live now (as perceived by a network generally agreed to have no idea what it is doing but—anything’s possible—may even be on to something). This involves hyperactive interactivity and abundant oversharing. While some of the Web videos are strictly farcical, that on-camera pep talk of Michaels’ stands as a jarringly earnest affair highlighting Fallon’s vulnerability. Another—I can’t bear to know if this was a product placement—captures Fallon going in for laser-eye surgery; the dull first half discovers new levels of moving-image banality, the graphic second half outdoes Un Chien Andalou. When Fallon isn’t on Facebook, he’s snapping pictures like a tourist in his own life or Twittering like a sincere little schoolboy: “1st show done. I was a bit nervous. But overall really happy. Phew!”