Presenters Jay Leno, left, and Jimmy Fallon pose in the press room during… (Kevin Winter / Getty Images )
With Jimmy Fallon officially set to take over “The Tonight Show” from Jay Leno next year, viewers can expect plenty of changes to the nearly 60-year-old late-night franchise. Of course there’s the show’s geographic relocation, from Burbank to a souped-up new studio at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.
But there’s also a vast stylistic difference between Leno, 62, and Fallon, who will be several months shy of his 40th birthday when he takes over “Tonight.”
In his two decades at NBC, Leno has consistently led the ratings -- mostly, his critics claim, by playing it safe with middle-of-the-road jokes and softball interviews. His monologue is heavy on the topical humor and Borscht Belt-style punch lines, and his most popular bits include “Jaywalking,” in which he quizzes clueless tourists on the streets of Los Angeles, and “Headlines,” a collection of unintentionally funny newspaper clippings submitted by viewers.
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Fallon is from a younger generation of comedians who generally eschew the brand of found humor popularized by Leno, but he’s also not as brainy or eccentric as his “Late Night” predecessor Conan O’Brien. Instead his comedy, which relies heavily on a wide range of impressions, is both broadly accessible and well-primed to younger viewers' taste for pop culture mash-ups and memes. (e.g. "Neil Young sings 'Whip My Hair'").
In his four years at “Late Night,” Fallon has freshened up the genre, finding ways to be creative within a rigid format. Perhaps his biggest innovation is his use of music, which plays an essential role on “Late Night.” Backed by the Roots, arguably the best (and easily the coolest) house band in late night, Fallon does a wide range of comedic musical bits that frequently become online hits: Their version of “Call Me Maybe,” played on classroom instruments, was possibly even catchier than the original and has to date racked up more than 13 million views on YouTube.
Fallon also manages to get his celebrity guests to join in the fun: Just last week “The Voice” star Blake Shelton and “Parks & Recreation” actor Nick Offerman donned chicken suits to join him for an all-clucking version of the Lumineers hit, “Ho, Hey,” that quickly went viral.
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Like Leno -- and in stark contrast to David Letterman, who can be something of an attack dog -- Fallon tends to take a light touch with guests. He’s effusive with praise and tends to get uncomfortable bringing up delicate subjects. That and the earlier hour will make it easier for Fallon to enlist even bigger names when he starts booking guests.
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