A new era of late-night TV began just after midnight tonight (Feb. 18), when NBC aired the first “Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” The episode taped on Monday afternoon (Feb. 17), however, at the network’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters in New York City.
Here’s how Fallon’s first episode unfolded, minute-by-minute, as taken in by this Billboard reporter from the press room on the building’s ninth floor.
4 p.m.-ish: Arrive at 30 Rock to sign in and am told to be by the elevators around 4:30. Sign a waiver filled with legal stipulations, mostly about not Tweeting about the episode before it airs.
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4:06: To fill time, I browse the lobby’s NBC Store and instantly notice that Fallon “Tonight Show” souvenirs greet customers at both doorways; t-shirts, mugs, hats, phone covers and more. “Late Night With Seth Meyers” items (for his show, which begins next Monday) also boast prominent placement. Sadly wonder why there’s so little “Seinfeld” memorabilia available for purchase. (A Kramer bus tour tee is one of the few items.) (Seinfeld voice: The show’s been over for 16 years. It’s not like they have to wait for t-shirts about last week’s episode! What’s the deal with that?!)
4:30-ish: The press corps is escorted to the ninth floor, where we’ll watch the first episode on a big screen. The group of mostly middle-age scribes gets serious about beginning the task at hand: eating free press room food.
4:42: While re-reading Billboard’s recent cover story on Fallon, I realize that we’re the same age (39). Oh, well, we can’t all host the “Tonight Show.” My comedy career consists of a stand-up album I released years ago exclusively in my head. Wanna hear a cut? It’s called “Don’t Get Old.” Here’s how it goes: “Remember when you were a kid and relatives came over, and, at some point, an older aunt would ask for your help getting up from a chair? As you helped them, they’d say, ‘Oh, don’t get old, Gary,’ as they reached for their creaky back and tried to stand up straight. ‘Don’t get old’? What kind of advice is that to say to a kid? Don’t get old?! You want me to die young?! That’s awful! Fine! Get up out of this chair yourself!”
(Hold on, tumbleweed blowing across the press room table …)
5:01: The audience emcee begins warming up the crowd. “Hoot, holler, scream,” he instructs for once the show is taping. “There’s no laugh track. You’re all we have!”
5:02: More earnestly, the emcee, noting how Fallon is bringing back the “Tonight Show” to New York City for the first time since Johnny Carson hosted it in the same studio (6B) in 1972, says to the crowd, “You are a part of history.”
5:05: We learn that some audience members drove six hours from Montreal to be in attendance, while others traveled from as far as Arkansas and Indianapolis. The emcee misses a chance to ask if the latter group is from Pawnee.
(Darn, there are a lot of tumbleweeds in here tonight …)
5:07: House band the Roots is introduced to wild applause. “Welcome to the ‘Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’ experience!” booms band leader Questlove.
5:13: Official show announcer Steve Higgins is introduced. “Oh my God, whoa … Welcome to the premiere episode of the ‘Tonight Show’ from New York City!” he beams.
5:14: Up until now, the press room big screen has shown only the new “Tonight Show” logo, with the words shining over a bright moon. (We’ve taken in only audio.) Suddenly, the screen cuts to: “Show #0001. Monday 2/17/14.” Then, the program’s nightly taped open is revealed. We see Fallon visiting, and shots of, various New York City landmarks, including Grand Central Station and Katz’s Delicatessen.
5:15: Blue curtains open and Jimmy Fallon walks out to raucous cheers. He looks sharp but modest in a gray suit and black tie. “Thank you! Please have a seat … thank you!” are his first words as host.
5:16: Fallon’s first joke: “I’m Jimmy Fallon and I’ll be your host … for now.” Fallon’s second joke is to thank all the previous “Tonight Show” hosts: “Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien … and Jay Leno.”
5:16: “I don’t know how I got here,” Fallon muses. “I grew up in Saugerties, New York. I had a great childhood. If you had told me I’d graduate high school, go on to “Saturday Night Live” and then host the “Tonight Show,” I’d say … I graduated high school?”
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5:17: In a more heart-warming and very real turn, Fallon thanks his wife, Nancy, 6-month-old daughter Winnie, and parents Gloria and Jimmy Sr. “I hope you’re proud of me,” he says. “As a kid, I remember wanting to watch Johnny Carson. If a kid now is staying up to watch me,” he continues, voice breaking, “… I hope I do well. It means a lot to me. I Just want to take care of the show for awhile.”
5:20: Showing that his monologue mark on which he’ll stand is a four-leaf clover, Fallon says simply that his goal his for “you to go to bed with a smile on your face.”
5:21: Fallon’s first monologue joke: “So, Meryl Davis and Charlie White won the first-ever U.S. gold medal in Olympics ice dancing tonight. It was so graceful, like a dream come true. Or, as I told the guys at work (voice deepening), ‘Great hockey game, huh?!'”
5:22: Further referencing the U.S. men’s hockey team’s exciting shootout win over Russia on Saturday, Fallon reports that, “the Russian team is missing. They’re having a different type of shootout …”
5:24: Fallon serves up his first branded bit, “Tonight Show Superlatives,” highlighting what futures Olympians’ yearbooks might’ve predicted for them. For clean-cut, 6’3″ speed skater Pierre Boda of France, Fallon proclaims: “World’s tallest Jonas brother!”
5:27: Fallon sits in the “Tonight Show” desk chair for the first time on-air. He reveals that Spike Lee directed the show’s slick taped open. Behind Fallon is a striking New York City skyline, with buildings of gold shining. The renowned Eugene Lee, also of “SNL,” among many other credits, designed the background.
5:29: Fallon announces that his tenure’s first “musical performance is going to blow your pants off … U2 is here tonight!”
5:30: Fallon takes a moment to chide his friend who’d bet he’d “never be host of the ‘Tonight Show.’ You know who you are. And, you owe me $100.” Robert DeNiro then walks out from behind the curtains and sheepishly hands Fallon a c-note. The bit turns out to be even richer, comically and financially, when he’s followed by, in order: Tina Fey, Joe Namath, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Mariah Carey (who pulled her $100 from the upper-most front part of her elegant strapless black dress), Tracy Morgan, Joan Rivers, a Kardashian (hold on …), Seth Rogen, Lindsay Lohan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mike Tyson and Lady Gaga (adorned in mesh, fishnets and dark glasses), all of whom add $100 each to Fallon’s bounty. Finally, Comedy Central late-night rival Stephen Colbert also serves up his $100 … in the form of pennies from a bucket, emptied over Fallon’s head.
“Thanks for believing in me, guys!” Fallon laughs.
5:33: As taping cuts to a break, the press room feels like a classroom, as reporters rush to make sure that they got all the guests, and their order of appearance. I feel like I don’t want anyone looking at my notes because I’m pretty sure I have all the correct answers. At least I learn that we all think it was Kim Kardashian.
5:37: Fallon and Will Smith appear in a funny taped bit called “The Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing.” They go through synchronized moves including the “Cabbage Patch,” “Robot,” “MC Hammer,” “Humpty Dance,” “Crank That,” “Dougie” and more. When Fallon finally becomes surely the first “Tonight Show” host to twerk on-air (or, I’m assuming, anywhere), Smith walks off the set.
The bit includes no dialogue, just the pair’s deft dancing and the names of their moves on-screen. In his first night, Fallon may have brought back vaudeville in a very cool way.
5:47: We hear the studio emcee say that Bill Harcourt is in attendance. He was an original producer on the “Tonight Show” more than a half-century ago. Harcourt jokes that the show is “about the same” now.
5:52: Taping resumes. “And, we’re baaaaack!” I hear in my head, chuckling silently at remembering Fallon’s impersonation of a manic morning radio DJ on “SNL.”
5:52: An NBC exec had told the press room earlier that “something special will happen at dusk.” Now we know: U2 appears on the roof of 30 Rock (i.e. the Top of the Rock) to sing its new single, “Invisible.” Behind the band, and frenetic fans, is New York City aglow in red, oranges, blues and purples. The Empire State building beams red, white and blue lights from its upper levels.
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5:53: We see the Edge, standing literally (as Chris Traeger would say) at the edge of the Top of the Rock roof.
5:58: The band tapes a second version of the song, for potential use in the edited episode.
5:58: I wonder how any act will ever match that performance in that incredible setting. Surely, though, music booker (and former Billboard editor) Jonathan Cohen will, repeatedly, going forward.
5:59: “Amazing,” marvels one writer, speaking for the room about U2’s performance and its beyond-stunning visuals. The jaded, un-impress-able industry types have been impressed.
6:04: An NBC PR exec tells me that the show’s staff decided to stage the U2 rooftop performance last Wednesday. “If there were any clouds, or if it snowed …” she says, thankful for the gift of the perfect sunset. I learn that “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels originally devised the idea for the outdoor staging. She and an NBC colleague laugh when I say, “Wow, what a great idea by Lorne … like he’s never heard that before in his career. Please make sure you tell him that some blog writer thinks he’s great!” We chuckle more. (Ooh, I think, I’ve impressed NBC employees. Maybe I should try out “Don’t Get Old.” Taking the advice of former network star George Costanza, I decide instead to go out on a high note.)
6:06: In a break, the Roots play Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” diluting the night’s New York theme with a Boston Red Sox anthem. Fallon starred, after all, in “Fever Pitch.”
6:10: Fallon welcomes his first guest to the couch, “one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Will Smith!” “I feel very honored,” Smith shares once seated.
6:14: “Art is a gift to people to make their lives brighter,” Smith says to Fallon. “You do it really well.”
6:15: Fallon thanks Smith’s daughter Willow, who once sent him a thank you letter after he’d performed a parody of her hit “Whip My Hair” as Neil Young. Fallon says that, “She was 10 and the note was on nicer stationary than I have now.”
6:22: Smith and Fallon banter easily about Smith’s recent skydiving and the Olympics. Fallon wraps the segment by showing a vintage t-shirt of alternative music icons the Smiths. Then, he presents a stack of tees of another Smiths, Will’s family, as a gift. “I couldn’t think of a better first guest,” Fallon says, smiling.
6:32: Fallon welcomes to the couch his new regime’s first musical guest (“who you saw earlier”), U2. “Have you ever performed higher?” he jokes … of the band having just played 70 stories up.
6:35: Fallon asserts that activist Bono could give a speech about anything. “Can you do a speech about … this coffee mug?” he challenges. “It’s not a cup,” Bono begins, easily rising to the task. “It’s a container that demands to be filled … by love.”
The Roots join in with appropriately emotional backing music.
6:36: Fallon congratulates U2 on having raised more than $3 million so far for the charity (RED) from sales of “Invisible.” “That’s what separates you from other bands,” Fallon lauds. “It’s for people to buy the drugs needed to fight AIDS,” Bono explains. “We’re very grateful.”
6:39: Fallon admits his longtime thought that if he ever had U2 on the couch, he’d ask the group to perform a song acoustic, “to see if you had the goods.” The band begins playing the first music ever performed by a guest live in-studio on the “Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”: the opening notes of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” After laughter, U2 plays its other new single, “Ordinary Love.” Bono and the band obviously have the goods.
Fallon and Smith, still on the couch, watch mesmerized.
6:44: The Roots turn the acoustic song into an electrified jam. Bono stands up, Fallon and Smith clap and the crowd dances along. Bono changes “ordinary love” into “Questlove” a few times.
6:45: A promo for tomorrow night shows that second-episode guests will be Jerry Seinfeld, Kristen Wiig and Gaga.
6:46: Fallon closes his first “Tonight Show” with, “Thanks for watching! Have a good night! I’ll see you tomorrow.”
6:48: Fallon bounces up the audience steps, high-fiving fans and finally seeking out his parents, who all surely can’t believe that the events of the last hour-and-a-half really just happened.
6:50: The Roots play to a joyous close.
Show #0001 down. Show #0002 next, when “Tonight” turns into tomorrow.