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A rocky start for Jimmy Fallon on Late Night

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Jimmy Fallon’s first week as the new host of Late Night (NBC, weeknights, 12:35 a.m.) was not exactly promising. It’s easy to rattle off the reasons to cut Fallon some slack—hosting a show like this is about the long haul, not the short term; he’s got the huge shoes of departed host Conan O’Brien (and past host David Letterman) to fill; everyone experiences a learning curve when launching a new late-night talk show—but that doesn’t change the fact that sitting through the first five episodes of Late Night was an often painful and demoralizing experience.

Fallon’s had a long time to perfect his hosting skills—he was announced as O’Brien’s Late Night replacement nearly a year ago, and was rumored for the position long before then. He also started posting short video segments on the show’s website back in December. And his experiences as a stand-up comedian, occasional MTV awards-show host and “Weekend Update” anchor on Saturday Night Live should have prepared him for delivering topical jokes, constructing a show in a short amount of time and performing in front of a live audience.

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Late Night With Jimmy Fallon
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NBC: Late Night With Jimmy Fallon

But the overwhelming feel of Fallon’s first week of shows was awkwardness, in the monologues, in the comedy bits and especially in the interviews. Fallon brought in a parade of ringers to fill the guest chair—friends and former co-stars including Tina Fey, Drew Barrymore, Billy Crudup and Cameron Diaz. Even talking to the people with whom he had a shared past, Fallon seemed spastic and ill-at-ease, prone to interrupting his guests with long stories of his own, or finishing their anecdotes for them. But while those interviews amounted to little more than, “Wasn’t it cool when we did that one thing together?,” at least they had a point.

With guests like Donald Trump, tennis star Serena Williams and Gossip Girl’s Chace Crawford, Fallon was lost, clearly unable to come up with interesting questions, and constantly interjecting his own opinions or long digressions. The worst interview was the first, with the notably taciturn Robert De Niro, who said maybe five words during his segment on the show’s premiere. Things improved as the week went on, but Fallon still has a long way to go before he’ll be able to get anything amusing or interesting out of his guests that doesn’t emerge in spite of him.

Other things improved as well over those first five days—Fallon was a little less fidgety in the monologue by Friday, but the jokes were still limp and obvious. One comedy bit, an extended The Hills/The City parody called 7th Floor West, was actually pretty funny, and clever about its satirical target. House band The Roots impressed with everything they did, from commercial bumpers to playing guests onstage to backing rapper Ludacris to participating in a bit called “Slow Jam the News.” Fallon called them the best band in late night at the end of each show, and he was right. But they’re also nearly the only good thing about the show.

After four nights of nonstop Fallon, I gave in on Friday and flipped during the commercials to The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson on CBS. Ferguson was a little shaky when he took over for Craig Kilborn in 2005 (although definitely more comfortable than Fallon), and he’s developed into a warm, funny, engaging host with great storytelling abilities in his monologues and excellent rapport with guests. Fallon will probably improve over time as well, but at this point, he doesn’t have anywhere to go but up.

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