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.

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.

"You've got an indie rock song, a country song, a hip-hop song, a classic you haven't heard in years and have forgotten how great it was," Cohen says. "I think we're going to continue along that path, that's what the audience enjoys and what we enjoy delivering."

It's a whole lot more than music, however. Instead of building an ecosystem of characters and guest performers around himself, Fallon used the stronger portions of the pop culture world around him to make the show strong where he was weakest. Making musical performances into viral clips rather than SNL fake-stage retreads made both him and the musicians he featured increasingly relevant. From Carly Rae Jepsen playing a schoolroom-instrument version of Call Me Maybe with The Roots to Bruce Springsteen and Fallon's Neil Young covering Willow Smith's Whip My Hair to Fallon's performance with The Muppets in his Late Night finale, Fallon balanced his music acumen with pop-culture in-jokes that made him indispensable to the Generation X and Millennial audiences he overlaps.

That generation and Fallon's appointed moment in time not only inform his approach, but make it wildly successful. There are a handful of elements that break through the Internet's white noise with equal efficiency: Overwhelming talent, jarring dissonance, cultural meme or careful and effective curation and promotion of each of the former. Fallon alone wasn't forceful enough to be any of the first three, but he may be the most effective curator of all of them that Internet Era television has produced.

Fallon's continued callbacks to pop culture including beer pong with Betty White, his History of Rap segments with Justin Timberlake and multiple TV show reunions that eventually drew in the casts of Full House, Saved By The Bell, and The Cosby Show weren't just nostalgic ploys. They re-appropriated pop culture pillars within a new context. That's what made lip-sync battles between Joseph Gordon Leavitt and Stephen Merchant work. They're what make Sam Rockwell improv dance numbers shine. They're what make a Paul McCartney performance of his Scrambled Eggs version of Yesterday as compelling to watch as Alicia Keys' version of the Gummi Bears theme song.

Fallon and company don't set out to make a watchable late-night show: They strive to create performances that are watchable long after the show airs. Fallon wants them to live on in the digital ether and stand out among the noise. He's built the better viral video clip and from Odd Future's Tyler The Creator to The Boss to The Fox -- he's inserted his show squarely into each meme of the last half decade.

No, Jimmy Fallon is not the greatest comedic performer late-night television has ever produced. But he has the greatest mind for comedic variety of his time and vast resources for bringing his and his creative collaborators' visions to life. If he wanted to write an episode of The Tonight Show into a remake of an episode of the 1980s Lyle Alzado pro wrestling sitcom Learning The Ropes -- complete with The Refused reuniting to play the theme song -- he could make it happen. He realizes it isn't about his own talent, but his ability to funnel the talent around him into a format that people will not only watch, but pass on to their friends.

He may never have his version of the Top 10 List or have to take to the road to perform a comedy show when the Tonight Show is taken away from him, but he'll be late-night television's great cultural aggregator and give a new generation the opportunity to watch him work on any screen it wishes. He doesn't need to be the star, just the starmaker.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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