Jay Leno Vs. Jimmy Fallon
Since 1993, Jay Leno has been the undisputed king of late night television. His Tonight Show has been atop the ratings for decades now, and his status as a television icon is all but secured. However, nothing lasts forever, and the 62-year-old Leno will likely retire sooner rather than later.
Of course, a show as famous as The Tonight Show can’t just fade away into nothingness. As was the case in 1993, when Leno took over for Johnny Carson, a successor will be anointed to helm the ship once Leno leaves. This was attempted once before, in 2009, when the show became Conan O’Brien’s baby. Sadly, a series of misunderstandings and missteps, not to mention Conan’s style of comedy not meshing with the Tonight Show crowd, caused Leno to return to the show less than a year after leaving it.
Now, it appears they’re looking to pass the torch again. Late Night host Jimmy Fallon is reportedly being tapped to replace Leno sometime in late 2014. Fallon and Leno are two very different comedians, and two very different hosts. If this happens, can Fallon succeed where Conan failed? Or will Leno’s name and style ultimately prove to be too much for any new, young host to overcome?
Jay Leno is a proven and reliable hand in the world of late-night television. He has been a comedian for over 40 years, and host of The Tonight Show for over twenty. People know his style, and trust that his jokes will consistently entertain them. High ratings prove this point; with very few exceptions, Leno’s show has been the #1 late-night talk show since 1995. At present time, he is still #1.
In addition to being reliable and visible around midnight on NBC, he’s reliable and visible everywhere. His face and voice are iconic at this point, and his fame is almost on the level that Carson’s was. Case in point: whenever a TV show or a movie wants to include a talk show clip, to help drive home a plot point, they usually just get Leno to do it.
As far as Leno’s actual material goes: it’s typically solid, safe and harmless, with only a slight hint of bite. For many older viewers (the kind that comprises the vast majority of the Tonight Show audience,) this is preferable. They know an hour with Leno will make them chuckle comfortably, and not challenge or upset them in any way.
Jimmy Fallon is fresher and hipper than Leno, having come from Saturday Night Live roughly ten years ago. His jokes are timelier, his style is looser, his delivery comes across as being far less pandering, and he generally comes across as more likeable than Leno.
Then you have the age factor. Fallon’s only 38, and has many more years ahead of him in his career. Starting the Tonight Show now would give him plenty of time to build the brand into his own, and bring in the youth demographic that NBC so desperately wants.
In addition, he would also work to increase the Tonight Show’s Internet crowd. As of 2013, the Nielsen company has started to count Internet/iPad viewings in their ratings. This can only increase Fallon’s overall appeal to the networks, as well as the viewers. His Late Night material has repeatedly shown an ability to go viral, far moreso than Leno’s. There’s no reason to think Fallon couldn’t do the same with the Tonight Show.
For many others however, Leno’s brand of comedy is not so much solid and safe as it is hackneyed and tired. He has relied on the same formats, premises, and topics for years now. He’s infamous for making Bill Clinton and OJ jokes, years and years after their scandals had become tired and played out.
In addition, Leno has been heavily criticized as the definition of a corporate sell-out. His pre-Tonight Show material was seen by many as some of the best, sharpest, and most interesting stand-up of his time. Since getting the show, however, Leno has continually played it safer and safer, so as not to anger NBC, or lose any of his lucrative endorsements.
Finally, as much as may appeal to older viewers, it’s the lucrative 18-34 youth demographic that networks truly desire. His appeal among that crowd has long been waning. For a group of people raised on edgy, scathing, razor-sharp, alternative comedy, he’s all but solidified himself as a nonthreatening, uninteresting corporate comic, whose biggest fans are older people set in their ways.
Fallon, even after years in front of crowds, still looks unsure of himself a lot of times, and is infamous for constantly laughing in the middle of SNL sketches. He still does this, during some Late Night sketches. What some may see as an example of his everyman appeal, others may see as pure immaturity. The concern is whether he’s truly professional enough to assume the mantle of the #1 late-night show on TV.
In addition, he might be dead in the water if he gets the show and ratings don’t pick up immediately. Leno’s ratings were not good when he started back in 1993, but he was given time to improve, and succeeded tremendously as a result. Even Carson took a year or so to find his footing as host. Sadly, the networks (and sponsors) don’t have this kind of patience anymore, as the 2009 Conan O’Brien debacle proved. A mere six months of declining ratings could spell doom for Fallon, no matter how good his material may be.
Finally, despite the Internet being ubiquitous, the vast majority of people still watch shows on television channels, networks still care greatly about TV ratings, and Fallon’s numbers are simply not spectacular; Leno regularly beats him, as he does everybody else. Fewer and fewer young people watch late-night talk shows, so Fallon may wind up stuck with an older audience that, quite simply, doesn’t get him.
Eventually, Jay Leno will retire. If Jimmy Fallon ends up being his replacement after all, The Tonight Show is all but guaranteed to be different. Fallon’s loose, hip, Internet-friendly style is drastically different from Leno’s tight, safe, somewhat-outdated, television-only style. Which one is better? Ultimately, the decision will be left to the viewers who provide ratings for both men. But who do you think is a better late-night host? Let us know with a vote and a comment.