Long Live the New King of Late Night

Jimmy Fallon's reign on the "Tonight Show" begins

It's hard to miss Jimmy Fallon these days. He's on half the magazine covers on the newsstands (including a profile that I wrote for a recent issue of Parade) and promotional ads with him pop up seemingly every three minutes during NBC's coverage of the Olympics.

There's a reason for all this attention. Come Monday night (Feb. 17), Fallon, 39, takes over one of the most fabled jobs on TV — the host of the NBC's "Tonight Show."

Most of his predecessors who've sat in the "Tonight Show" host's chair are TV legends. The late-night talk show dates back to 1954 and, during its 60-year history, only five other men — and no women — have held the job.

Steve Allen built the mold for the show in New York in 1954, delivering a monologue, doing wacky stunts and cutting up nightly with celebrity guests for three years. Jack Paar took over in 1957 and presided over a more jittery and intellectually curious version of the program until 1962.

A young comic and failed game show host from the Midwest, Johnny Carson, was installed behind the "Tonight Show" desk in 1962 and stayed there for 30 years. With his easygoing demeanor and mimed golf club swing, Carson ruled late night. Competitors came and went but he was the undisputed king, garnering huge ratings and a salary to match. (He moved the show out to Los Angeles from New York in 1972; better weather for playing tennis.)

Carson retired voluntarily in 1992. He was succeeded by Jay Leno, who kept the "Tonight Show" show at No. 1 for most of his 22-year tenure (minus a short, disastrous stint when NBC tried to install Conan O'Brian as host in 2009). With his jutting jaw and everyman persona, Leno was a reassuring presence rather than a challenging or edgy one.

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Now white-haired and 63 years old, Leno was prodded to retire by NBC and to hand the "Tonight Show" gig over to Fallon. NBC is hoping Fallon will bring in a younger audience than Leno's, attracting viewers who've largely given up on TV in favor of online offerings or video games.

Fallon is more of a showman than Leno was. A veteran of "Saturday Night Live," he is a loose-limbed, boyish multi-talent who can sing, play guitar, do impressions and loves both to parody and celebrate pop culture in sketches. His "Tonight Show," which will once again originate from New York, will be very much in the model of "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," the show that directly follows "Tonight" on NBC and on which he has served as host for the past five years.

TV, though, has changed. For most baby boomers, as a child or adolescent, being allowed to stay up late and watch Johnny Carson was like being allowed a glimpse of the sophisticated adult world. This, you just knew, was where the cool kids went when they grew up.

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That was, however, an era of only three networks. Now, with the proliferation of endless channels and options, late-night viewers can watch TV's smartest late night hosts, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, on Comedy Central, or Conan O'Brien on TBS, Chelsea Handler on E!, Jimmy Kimmel on ABC, or the aging and seemingly increasingly dyspeptic Dave Letterman on CBS. And those are just the choices for talk shows. There are also movies, sports, syndicated reruns of "Seinfeld," and plenty of additional choices on TV.

That's if one is even going to watch TV. These days, actual TV viewers watching shows in real time are becoming an increasingly diminishing breed. People time-shift using DVRs, stream shows on network sites and Hulu, watch only the highlights on YouTube, or wait and watch entire series in giant gulps via Netflix, iTunes or Amazon or DVDs.

Still, it's the "Tonight Show" and 60 years of tradition counts for something. Fallon is talented, enthusiastic and easy to like. But whether he'll still be behind that desk in 20 or 30 years like Leno and Carson is very much an open question.

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