Maybe it was that time Jimmy Fallon portrayed Neil Young – specifically, Neil Young singing the “Fresh Prince” theme song - when it became glaringly obvious that what we were watching was something different. Something un-TV like.
Jay Leno is leaving the “Tonight Show” – again – on Friday. Jimmy Fallon takes over on Feb. 17, and Seth Meyers takes Fallon’s “Late Night” slot the following week.
Jimmy Fallon attends 'Howard Stern's Birthday Bash' presented by SiriusXM, produced by Howard Stern Productions at Hammerstein Ballroom on January 31, 2014 in New York City. Photo Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for SiriusXM
What Fallon leaves in his version of “Late Night” is a show specifically equipped for the new media landscape, transforming a traditional TV program into something more complete. Eight months after the show debuted in 2009 I talked to Fallon and his top producers, and now more than four years later, the roadmap they envisioned helped propel Fallon behind the “Tonight Show” desk, and made many in the audience forget the guy who broke character on “Saturday Night Live” or starred in mediocre movies.
There was a specific formula – and it worked. Here’s how “Late Night” with Fallon brought TV into the future…and all of TV would be wise to follow suit.
1. Do things some people "love," not things a lot of people "like"
One of the most memorable quotes from that 2009 article was from Mike Shoemaker, who was then Executive Producer of "Late Night" (he'll continue as the "Late Night" Executive Producer as Meyers takes over).
"The way we like to approach an audience is we like to do things that certain people love, as opposed to something everybody likes,” he said. "That's an approach that is fed by this generation that looks at things on the web. Everyone has the main blog that they look at, but then there’s that one weird thing that only you like.”
Jimmy Fallon, right, dressed as Robert Pattison, left. Credit: www.hollywire.com
That’s a vital distinction. Not everyone will love everything Fallon does. In fact, some things – whether it’s the latest cover of a pop song or dressing up like Robert Pattinson – will be complete turn-offs for a segment of the audience. Great – embrace the alienation. Because some people will love it: it will be the thing they talk about with their friends at work or at school for weeks. And that mentality, of connecting with the audience down to the core, not just on a surface level, will win in the end.
Jay Leno is funny – lots of people like Jay Leno. Millions. In fact, it’s fair to say more people like Leno than Fallon. But I’d wager more people LOVE Fallon than Leno. And in the ever-segmented media landscape, with more options than ever, love is key.
[sharequote align="center"]And in the ever-segmented media landscape, with more options than ever, love is key.[/sharequote]
2. Content lives beyond the TV timeslot
Maybe they were a little ahead of their time in 2009 to be thinking of how a segment lives beyond the moment, because now most shows are aware of the potential virality a segment can have. Still, it takes a certain kind of program to dive into the digital abyss head-on.
At the time, Supervising Producer Gavin Purcell (a smart, tech mind who came from G4 before “Late Night”) said, “We go into the business of creating these things thinking about how they will live off the TV show. It’s not like we go and say ‘how will we create a viral hit?’ but we definitely think of these as, ‘how do we make them so they can live on in a different way?’”
David Beckham and host Jimmy Fallon play Egg Russian Roulette on 'Late Night With Jimmy Fallon' at Rockefeller Center on January 31, 2014 in New York City. Credit: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon
That means certain content that shows up in the “show” – the 48-or-so minutes of nightly programming – is there specifically so it can take on a new trajectory online. The second life of the content can help bring eyeballs to the first life, and the chicken-or-egg of how you became a “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” fan ends up as a truly individual experience. But it also means you may become a fan online first - an inconceivable notion for a TV show only a few years ago.
3. A TV show website is not just a clip repository
Back in 2009, Fallon made a point to say, “We concentrate just as much on our website as we do on our show.”
That’s obviously, extremely rare for a major broadcast TV program. Fallon’s show employs three full-time bloggers for the website, tasked with expanding the site beyond show clips and ‘what’s coming up’ content. (One of the former bloggers is Sara Schaefer, who went on to co-host the MTV show “Nikki and Sara Live.”)
The website has the usual content, but also original interviews and digital franchises, games (trivia and cartoon beer pong) and some incredible behind-the-scenes videos that peel back the curtain on the show itself.
4. Social media matters
Back in December 2009 Jimmy Fallon, a Twitter early adopter, had 2.3 million followers. By today's standard, that would be pretty solid, but now he's up to 11.4 million and growing. And he uses the medium as a two-way street, responding to fans, and sharing random pictures and thoughts. He also has nearly a million Facebook followers, and the show has an active YouTube, Tumblr Instagram and Pinterest presence.
Credit: Twitter Screenshot.
But back to Twitter. Fallon has become the first late night host, and maybe the figurehead behind the first television show, to successfully make the Twitter echo chamber something viable to the greater, non-tweeting public. Through his hashtag segments, 140-character crowd-sourced humor becomes legitimately funny late night TV fodder. The effect is the antithesis of 'reading tweets on air from random people' - in other words, it actually adds value, without turning off the crowd that calls "#" a "pound."
5. Be self-aware enough to know what works
Jimmy Kimmel does a great monologue featuring TV clips and other elements. Conan O'Brien can conduct delightfully weird interviews. Jay Leno has bits like Jay-Walking and Headlines. But if you broke down these three shows in amount of time spent devoted to every segment, they all follow roughly the same formula: standing monologue, to the desk for a bit, a couple guests sitting on the couch, a musical guest or comedian and goodnight.
[sharequote align="center"]More often than not, guest interviews morph into guest...something better. [/sharequote]
Jimmy Fallon's comedy doesn't mesh with sitting next to a celebrity - the guest interviews are fine, but fairly uneventful. So why get stuck in convention? More often than not, guest interviews morph into guest...something better. It's how you get Betty White playing Beer Pong or Kate Upton playing Flip Cup or Joseph Gordon-Levitt lip-synching or Will Ferrell doing whatever hilarious thing this is. Trim the fat, and focus on what works.
6. Don't pick a political side
If you're a TV show throwing your shoulder one direction or the other politically, you're bound to alienate a large portion of a potential audience that may otherwise find your content appealing. Jay Leno knew this. David Letterman went left and didn't care.
Sure, Fallon gave a comfortable platform for President Obama in 2012, but he made Mitt Romney feel right at home as well, slow-jamming the news too. It doesn't just apply to late night shows either - inserting politics into entertainment in a way that isn't, let's say 'fair and balanced,' is bound to exclude.
Which brings us to Questlove - the only member of the "Late Night" team who violated number six with his intro to Michele Bachmann's appearance. That said, the interview was more than fair, and the response from Quest was thoughtful.
But really, if you can get The Roots and Questlove involved in your TV show, that's going to help. They are versatility personified - they can do everything from Kenny Chesney to "Call Me Maybe" (with classroom instruments).
So now Fallon moves to the "Tonight Show" and an hour earlier. The threshold for success is lower than when Conan took over a few years ago and ultimately was ousted, but Fallon is also better positioned to lead the show into the future - and the next generation of TV programming.
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