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Opinion: Jimmy Fallon must try to avoid repeating Conan O'Brien's mistakes

By Jesse Rifkin
On April 8, 2013

It was a late summer night in 2007 and I was staying up later than I ever had to watch the various late night television programs for the first time when I discovered the comedic genius of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." He began his opening monologue with the joke, "A team of scientists has created a new car which runs not off gasoline but human fat. That's right, Middle East. NOW who has the world's largest energy reserves?"
His deliberately unpolished delivery (unlike all the other late night hosts, he had not begun in standup or performance comedy), combined with his offbeat characters, wacky sketches and crazy questions asked of celebrity guests made for a combination unlike anybody else.
Every weekday for the next two years I would come home from school to fix myself a snack and watch his previous night's installment online. (I wasn't going to repeatedly stay up until 1:30 a.m. with school at 7 the next day!) Though we never personally met, Conan O'Brien helped get me through high school.
Then he took over "The Tonight Show" in an earlier timeslot and the change was immediate. In a pitiful attempt to win over a different audience, composed of more middle-aged and older people instead of nocturnal college students, Conan halted nearly everything that had made him great. Gone were the insane recurring characters including the FedEx Pope and The Interrupter or the back-and-forth banter between the wild Conan and his deliberately dull sidekick Max Weinberg.
In the 1990s he started the recurring segment "In the Year 2000," with hilarious fake predictions about that far-off year. Once it actually became 2000 and even for many years afterwards, he continued calling the segment that, creating one of the show's most famous and funniest recurring jokes. On "The Tonight Show," he renamed it "In the Year 3000." At that moment, the Conan O'Brien we knew and loved was gone. He lasted seven months. I stopped watching after one.
Conan had ranked first place in his time slot for over a decade, an especially incredible feat considering that few shows even last a decade at all. Upon taking over "The Tonight Show" he failed to last a full year. He mistakenly believed that switching up his humor and style would appeal to a different demographic. And to be sure, there were some slight differences in audience. But his zany 12:30 a.m. show got him the 11:30 p.m. gig in the first place!
With Wednesday's news that Jay Leno will retire next February to be replaced by Jimmy Fallon, that lesson is worth remembering. Fallon is a fantastic talent and among the best all-around entertainers in the industry today - but unlike Leno, he takes chances, taking his comedy far outside the box. This is the man who convinced Michelle Obama to perform "the evolution of 'mom dancing,'" who got Christina Aguilera to sing alongside a backing band "playing" office supplies like water coolers and touch-tone phones, who fought a "water war" with Super Soakers against Tom Cruise, who sang a duet with Chris Christie doing "Thunder Road" by Bruce Springsteen. His humor works because his mindset is fresh and his ideas are original. I would hate to see his mindset go stale and his ideas become rehashed.
Keeping the program in New York City is promising. The show originated there but former host Johnny Carson moved it to Los Angeles in 1972. Bringing it back will entail minimal change on Fallon's part, as opposed to O'Brien who was forced to move across the country for no real reason, thus robbing him of his frequent New York-referencing jokes or the emotional potency of his first post-9/11 monologue.
Jay Leno and David Letterman - who have maintained first- and second-place in the 11:30 timeslot for the past two decades - have become old, tired, and out of touch. Take the widely-ridiculed moment when Letterman interviewed Taylor Swift, among the most famous celebrities in the country. Reading off a notecard, he introduced her as the youngest person in history to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. During the interview, Letterman asked her age. "Twenty." So when you won the Grammy for Album of the Year, how old were you then? "I was twenty." By contrast, Fallon not only landed a funny interview with Swift but also impersonated her in a skit that aired during last year's Super Bowl... because he actually knew who she was.
Leno will retire after hosting for 21 years, while his predecessor Carson lasted 30. At only age 38, Fallon could potentially survive just as long - if he heeds the mistakes of the last person who tried replacing Jay Leno. 


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