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Forget Letterman and Conan: Jimmy Fallon Will Top Them Both

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- In an Internet world, you only grab attention as a strong voice or as a curator of those voices.

Jimmy Fallon is Buzzfeed with more clout and better distribution. He's HuffPo with a house band.

He'll never be the host that David Letterman and Conan O'Brien were, but he's the host that everyone else who follows will have to be.

Fallon's final days at NBC's Late Night before his big transition to The Tonight Show on Feb. 17 were even more examples of how he and his staff redefined late-night hosting duties since Fallon filled O'Brien's chair in 2009. Fallon's Late Night predecessors were both outsized personalities whose shows were made up of spare parts continually in orbit around the high wattage personality behind the desk.

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The entire format of their shows was predicated upon the stars' gravity. The joke-strewn monologue, the narrated or integrated skits, the on-the-couch interview segments and the musical or comedic performance that followed all required Letterman or O'Brien to be the glue -- to punch them up, ad lib them through their paces or to lace them with jabs and non sequiturs that ultimately reflected on the host's talents and not those of the bit players around them. Yet Fallon's Late Night farewell drew 6.6 million viewers, the show's biggest audience since Letterman's last appearance in 1993. 

From the beginning, Fallon felt like a tear in that blueprint. During his career at Saturday Night Live, he slowly transitioned from the chortling sideman of the More Cowbell sketch and the giggly counterpart to Horatio Sanz and Weekend Update co-anchor Tina Fey's  straight-arrow delivery to the understated complement to featured guests -- with his Justin Timberlake Gibb brothers performances drawing on his strengths. He made comedy albums that lacked the broad-base, low-denominator appeal of Adam Sandler and he made films like 2004's Taxi that could have used a stronger comedic lead like Will Farrell. His talents never seemed quite enough to carry a project, but they never had to be.

Fallon's greatest gift is his database knowledge of pop culture and his ability to identify its peaks and valleys and use them to his advantage. He chose The Roots as his house band and immediately gave his show not only some serious music credentials, but a band that had experience with vetting and uncovering talent during its weekly BlackLily music series at long-deceased New York club Wetlands. That series put a microphone in front of Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and Macy Gray before anybody thought to put a camera in front of them.

Fallon's Late Night music booker, Jonathan Cohen, told Wired that Fallon's partnership with The Roots and his approach to visiting music acts were intended to turn his show into the equivalent of an iTunes playlist -- with no genre or performer off limits.

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