Say hello to a younger, cooler (ish) Tonight Show
When Jimmy Fallon dethrones Jay Leno, it’ll be from Rockefeller Center, not Burbank. Here's why the move to NYC—and the new host—are so important to the program’s future.
Fri Feb 14 2014
Photograph: James White/NBC
At last, The Tonight Show, with its glamorous and troubled past, is coming back to New York City. Like an attractive but unstable ex-lover, the show made frenemies out of Jay Leno and David Letterman, and pulled Conan O'Brien out of his New York studio of 16 years and all the way to Los Angeles. Transitions between Tonight Show hosts necessitate a torch-passing—and sometimes a torch taking-back—but the iconic late-night program is about to make its biggest shift in decades. On Monday, February 17, not only will outgoing host Jay Leno turn the reins over to Jimmy Fallon, but the show itself will move from Burbank, California, where it has filmed for more than 40 years, back to the East Coast.
Yes, back: The program went through its infancy and adolescence in Manhattan. With Steve Allen at the helm, Tonight (as it was then called) began broadcasting in 1954 from the Hudson Theatre on West 44th Street, and it remained in New York during Jack Paar's five-year run. But our city has been in a long-distance relationship with the show since 1972, when Johnny Carson, a decade into his 30-year hosting stretch, relocated to Burbank. Leno took over 20 years later, and you know the rest.
Photograph: ZUMA Press
As its newest steward, Fallon is perfectly poised to make sure that The Tonight Show’s return is more than just a rebound. For the better part of the past 15 years—first on Saturday Night Live and then as the host of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon—he’s had a hand in the most made-in–New York City fun you can have while sober, at home and alone late at night. Fallon is genteel enough to appeal to longtime Tonight Show viewers, but hip enough not to call it "the Twitters." A new suitor will save young America from its long, painful marriage to Jay Leno.
Throughout his tenure, Leno trained America to expect comedy comfort food at 11:30pm. If humor were bowling, Leno’s bits (such as "Jaywalk" and "Headlines") would roll solidly down the center of the lane each time, knocking over the same eight pins. So when NBC attempted its last coup d’Tonight, in 2009—turning the desk over to Conan O’Brien—it didn’t seem like a natural transition. O’Brien is at his best trying ambitious bits, but Leno's audience was not prepared for novelty. O'Brien’s Tonight Show wasn’t your parents' Tonight Show—which was a problem, because your parents still wanted a Tonight Show. The network let O’Brien go seven months later.
NEXT: Why Jimmy Fallon is the host The Tonight Show needs now
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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)