Steve Allen once told his audience the he expected The Tonight Show to last forever. He made his comment as the first host of The Tonight Show, which he debuted on national television on September, 27, 1954. Born from a popular local program on the NBC Affiliate, WNBT in New York City, the now famous late night entertainment show has lasted more than 60 years, making the Steve Allen comment the most prophetic of statements in an industry where “forever” is often defined as little as one night or one episode. Allen, along with announcer Gene Rayburn and bandleader Skitch Henderson, stayed with the program for three years and were successful in introducing program mainstays like, the opening monologue and the now venerable comedy sketch. Over the next five decades Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno performed the role of host, each adding their own brand of comedy, wit and talent to make The Tonight Show the most iconic late night talk show in U.S. television history.
While each host has successfully etched their own indelible mark and individual uniqueness on the shows history, the format and many of the tropes developed over many years remain a mainstay of the show, creating a loyal and dedicated following among generations of late-night TV viewers, the fundamental reason for the show’s long-running success. Each keeper of the stage, during their respective tenure, brought to the endeavor their own delivery, style, personality and brand of comedy.
This year’s passing of the late-night torch to Jimmy Fallon has spawned the usual debate and controversy, mostly centered on his capability to live up to such monumental standard fore-bearers as Paar, Carson and Leno. While mindful of such elevated and inevitable comparisons, Fallon appears to be smart enough to not attempt to be a Carson or Leno, aware that while imitation is often seen as the best form of flattery – pure imitation, in the entertainment world at least, leads a performer to nothing more than a relative membership in a crowded club of Elvis impersonators. Membership in the iconic Tonight Show club will require Fallon to develop and establish a brand that will satisfy several generations of existing loyal fans while attracting his own generation of Tonight Show loyalists.
From the very beginning of his tenure, Fallon vowed to be true to his successful Late Night Show format, saying that his Tonight Show will be the “same show” as he is doing now, “I’m not going to change anything.” And true to his word, Jimmy’s Tonight Show features some of his Late Night best-known bits, such as “Egg Russian Roulette”, and the weekly carry-over of the popular sketch: the absurdist “Thank You Notes” segment. The extensions are evidence that Fallon intends to establish his own brand of The Tonight Show and follow a strategy of integrating that which is working elsewhere within an already historically successful format. Messing with such well-established success, while courageous, often can lead to disaster of historic proportion.
However, the most recent ratings indicate that the gamble may very well be paying off for Fallon, the show’s producers and the network. For the most recent May sweep, “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” dominated the space with a 1.14 rating in the 18-49 viewer segment, which is Tonight’s highest for a May sweep in five years. Fallon out-delivered his competition, out-performing Letterman by a 31% margin and topping Kimmel by a 35% advantage. Whether Jimmy Fallen can continue to polish his own branded and solidify his own success among his former titans remains to be determined. But for now he seems to be creating his own traditions equal to the giants who came before him.