Jimmy Fallon is frustrated, to the degree the famously unflappable Tonight Show host ever gets frustrated. In just a few hours, Justin Bieber is scheduled to take the stage at 30 Rock’s Studio 6B. Earlier that morning, Fallon laid out the plan in a tweet to his 29.2 million Twitter followers: Bieber would “do something fun” and then play a song backed by Tonight Show house band The Roots. (“Plus @SalmanRushdie is here!”). Unless you’ve somehow never seen the show — which has dominated its time slot more or less since the beginning, bouncing back to first place after being displaced for just one night by the debut episode of Stephen Colbert’s new Late Show — or resisted clicking on a Tonight Show clip posted by your coworker’s cousin, you know what “something fun” means. It means Fallon and Michelle Obama grooving their way through “The Evolution of Mom Dancing” (23 million views). It means an epic lip-sync battle with Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart (49 million). It means Fallon and Bruce Springsteen dueting on “Born to Run,” with lyrics revised to tackle New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s bridge scandal (6.5 million).
It means, in short, the kind of guaranteed, good-natured win you’d think Bieber, as part of his mission to rehabilitate his image, would enthusiastically embrace. But today, sometime between this morning’s tweet and lunchtime, Bieber changed his mind. No sketch. “It’s like, I don’t care,” Fallon says, sounding resigned. “I mean, I wish they’d told me weeks ago because today’s the day, and now we have to crunch and think of an idea to do. And I have to apologize to the crew guys who built the set and the wardrobe people and everyone. But it’s not what he does. He’s here to sing, so as long as he’s comfortable and it sounds good then we did our job. And if I talk to him and make him funny and make him look good, that’s my job. That’s all I have to do.”
Which is all a pretty good explanation for how the 40-year-old comedian sees the gig. He’s a host. Fallon wants everyone who comes on his show — no matter who they are or what his private feelings about them might be — to emerge from the experience looking as good as possible and having enjoyed their stay. “There’s a lot of ways to promote your stuff, but you feel safe there,” says Madonna and U2 manager Guy Oseary, who has seen how a Tonight Show performance can move the needle, even for the biggest acts on the planet. “But it goes beyond promotion. It’s not just, ‘That’s going to be the most viral thing,’ or ‘That’s going to be the most popular thing.’ It’s ‘That’s going to be the most fun thing.’”
That ease, along with performance chops that allow him to pull off high-wire bits like “The History of Rap” with his buddy Justin Timberlake, have helped make The Tonight Show the perfect embodiment of the current media moment, when viewers are so supersaturated with content that the last thing anyone needs is another canned quote or movie plug. “The only conversation I ever had with Johnny Carson, he said, ‘It really just comes down to whoever is behind the desk,’ ” says Lorne Michaels, who cast Fallon on Saturday Night Live and is the executive producer of The Tonight Show. “There’s something generous and kind about Jimmy, which the audience intuitively knows. When you do that form, it’s important that you don’t feel that you have to top your guests or beat them to a punchline. He’s very happy to enjoy people.”
“Unlike so many other people, he’s as genuinely interested in his audience as the guests he has on to entertain them,” adds Fallon’s friend and regular guest Bono. “His conversations, his occasional games with them, reveal his true self.”
From the time he took over Late Night in 2009, Fallon understood the way his young audience consumed late-night TV — on their phones, in their cubicles, through Facebook likes and retweets. “If you want to just talk, that’s great, I love to talk,” says Fallon. “Easy for me, man. But if you want to play, there’s an option.” And increasingly, celebrities understand the value of that option: They get to appear quote-unquote human and score a major social media bump, all without the risk of humiliation. “You just see a different side to them,” says Fallon. “You want to see Liam Neeson in a bubble suit, running around. You want to see Julia Louis-Dreyfus trying to do an interview from under the desk.”
We’ve arrived in an era that feels a million years away from the Jay Leno/David Letterman wars that left Conan O’Brien mostly absent from the late-night conversation. In their wake, a whole new generation of talent — who go out of their way to be civil with each other, no matter how competitive they might actually be — has occupied late-night TV, from U.K. import James Corden (whose most popular bits, like “Carpool Karaoke,” owe a particularly heavy Fallon debt) to Jimmy Kimmel (who helped blaze the late-night virality trail) to, of course, Colbert, who arrived on CBS with major fanfare the second week of September. “Kimmel was great to me — when I came on he was very supportive,” Fallon says, a few days before he made a quick cameo on Colbert’s debut. “So I’m going to be just as supportive as I can be to Colbert, who really isn’t even the new guy because he has totally been around. We did bits on his old show where we were frenemies and rivals, which was fun. So yeah, welcome. Best of luck, man.” Fallon insists he never checks in with the competition — not even Letterman’s sendoff: “I think I saw clips. It seemed nice.”
The official line, at least, is that Colbert isn’t a concern — that everyone at The Tonight Show is too busy to even think about what’s happening a few blocks away at the Ed Sullivan Theater. “We’re not doing anything different than what we’ve always done,” Fallon says a couple of days into Colbert’s run — and the morning after a particularly glitzy Tonight Show featuring Timberlake (the show cold-opened with “History of Rap 6”) and Ellen DeGeneres (who slayed with Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” during “Lip Sync Battle”). “Last night was a perfect show,” he says, “probably the best we’ve ever done.”
The ratings agree: The Timberlake/DeGeneres night pulled in 4 million viewers, to Colbert’s 3.6 million (with Kimmel third at 2.2 million), and a week in, with the exception of Colbert’s first night, The Tonight Show has beaten Late Show by a significant margin — especially in the key 18-to-49 demo. None of this is a new phenomenon — Fallon’s Tonight Show often attracted as many of those younger viewers as Letterman and Kimmel combined. That youth-skewing appeal has made the show a powerhouse moneymaker for NBC — pulling in $196.3 million in ad revenue in 2014, according to Kantar Media. “The economic impact, clearly it’s important,” says Michaels. “But it has redefined them in terms of social media and with an audience that didn’t really know what NBC was.” In fact, NBC may have even underestimated its late-night star when it declined to pick up the Fallon-produced Tonight Show spinoff Lip Sync Battle, hosted by LL Cool J and Chrissy Teigen, which ended up becoming a major hit for (of all networks) Spike TV. “It was a bigger success than we even thought it was going to be,” says Fallon, whose main gig now pays a reported $10 to $11 million a year, following a recent six-year contract extension. “But I’m letting other people take that over — I don’t have time. I want to put all of my energy into The Tonight Show.”
Sitting in his corner office backstage at Studio 6B — where he also taped Late Night, and just downstairs from SNL, where he got his start at age 24 — Fallon is dressed like a hip college professor, in tan jean-cut pants, a blue button-down shirt and green tie. He’s drinking from a carton of chocolate-milk-flavored coffee from the cult coffee chain Stumptown Roasters, which he offers to visitors from a fridge in the corner. (Fallon is a major foodie.) “It’s the f—ing best thing you ever had, right?” he says, with almost exactly the same high-amplitude enthusiasm he uses a little later to describe singing “Desire” onstage with U2 at Madison Square Garden.
The walls are lined with family photos — his wife Nancy Juvonen, a movie producer he met when he starred with Drew Barrymore in 2005’s Fever Pitch; their daughters Winnie, 2, and 9-month-old Frannie; his parents on their wedding day — and memorabilia, including a handwritten note from Jerry Lewis that simply reads, “You can’t say f—?”
Much of the office art has a music connection: a huge stained-glass portrait of Buddy Holly, a painting by Syd Barrett, a custom guitar that lights up at the flip of a switch, a photo of Michaels giving notes to Mick Jagger and Dan Aykroyd on SNL. “I always knew music was going to be a big part of the show because the show is basically everything I like,” says Fallon. Adds Roots bandleader Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, 44: “This is what happens when the kids of the ’70s become the establishment — we give what we know. We know a lot of hip-hop, we know a lot of sketch comedy.”
Growing up in Saugerties, N.Y., a town over from Woodstock, Fallon began playing guitar when he was 12, forming a trio called The Born Losers in high school. “We played ‘Wild Thing,’” he recalls, “and got our repertoire up to probably 10 songs, some Bee Gees in there, Nirvana, some Elvis.” Which, it should be pointed out, is almost exactly the strange, broad range of his Tonight Show. “When I brought this show to late night, I said, ‘This isn’t a generation of “we only like one thing.” You hit ‘shuffle’ and that’s what our show is.’ ”
One of Fallon’s defining qualities, especially as a performer, is the way he makes everything look easy. “That’s his gift,” says Michaels. Which is why, perhaps, a gory accident earlier this year shook him deeply. In June, he tripped at home, and as he fell his wedding ring nearly severed his finger. “Bono was one of the first emails,” says Fallon, shifting seamlessly into a Bono-y brogue. “He said, ‘Welcome to the club, my Irish brother.’ And Edge sent me a thing. He fell too [from a stage, in May]! I mean, it’s insane. I go, ‘Why are we all falling? What the hell is wrong with us?’ ”
He has been spending a lot of his mornings at doctors’ appointments, and the news isn’t good — he’ll require another surgery. Removing the bandage, the finger is all gnarled and swollen and doesn’t have a lot of mobility. “It’s a bummer, but you can’t get depressed.”
Because, of course, there’s always another show to prepare for. A couple of days before Donald Trump was set to appear on The Tonight Show, Fallon was musing about the candidate. “We should be paying him,” he says. “But it’s interesting. He was a punchline six months ago, but something has happened — the audience has shifted. They don’t laugh at him like that anymore, so we have to find a different way for them to laugh at him. It’s like, six months ago a joke about Hillary [Clinton] moving furniture into the Oval Office would have been a slam-dunk. Now they’re not too sure — it’s not guaranteed that she’s going to the White House anymore. It’s interesting how jokes shift.”
Every four years, the presidential campaigns offer a bountiful gift to comedians — one that Fallon is happy to receive. “I make fun of everyone. That’s my job,” he says. “When it comes to the show, I don’t have a dog in the fight. If they want to come on, my job is to make them look good, no matter who it is.” As a result, the show has become a key early campaign stop — a place where Trump can reveal himself as a good sport, facing off against Fallon-as-Trump in a bit — without fear of being wrong-footed during the interview. “The fact that Trump decided to do our show over other shows is an honor. Hillary could have done any other show. But she chose ours.”
As for Fallon, he’s unlikely to be going anywhere anytime soon — in fact, there’s a very good possibility that the Tonight Show desk will be his for the rest of his working life. It’s a reality that Questlove has begun to come to terms with (“the last 20 years was education and preparation for this job”) and that Michaels hopes and assumes will come to pass, but notes, “It’s a very grueling pace.” And if you ask Fallon? He’s definitely in — with only one condition. “If we have an audience, I’ll be there.”
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 26 issue of Billboard.