He’s entertained Late Night audiences with his signature mix of interviews, music, sketches and dead-on impersonations for five years, but starting this week, he’ll clock in as the new host of the venerable Tonight Show, taking over for the recently retired Jay Leno. While the show’s address will change from Burbank to NBC’s 30 Rock, Fallon plans to keep much of his Late Night act intact while landing even better guests. (Will Smith and U2 will join him on the premiere. So not a bad start.) Here’s what Jimmy told us about the new gig, which starts this evening at 12 ET/11 CT.
How do you feel about following in the footsteps of Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno?
It’s surreal, and it’s an honor. I’ve been given a real big responsibility and I don’t want to let anyone down. I’m going to work as hard as I can, because I know how much the show means. It’s an important job. But I just want to make everyone laugh. I’m still hungry and still excited to go to work everyday and still excited to see the guests.
Why was it important to you that the show moved to New York?
It kind of wasn’t a real option. I was born and raised in New York, where I live with my wife and baby. Tonight has been in L.A. for 40-something years, but it started in New York. Why not bring it back? It’s just a beautiful city. When I think of New York I think of nighttime, the lights and Times Square and Broadway and the excitement and the glitz and the glamour of all that is The Tonight Show. Booking-wise, it’s never been a problem for us. We’ve had the President of the United States on [Late Night]. You can’t get bigger than that.
What kinds of guests are you most interested in having on?
I’m always fascinated by celebrities and big Hollywood stars. Will Smith is a big Hollywood star and he always brings it every time he goes on a talk show. He’s a great conversationalist. He’s very animated. He’s great on television and he’s a giant, giant movie star. I think it’s a good mix with him and U2. When I first started [on Late Night] I tried to get U2 as a guest, and they were doing a week on Letterman. So I couldn’t get them. Who am I really into now? Brie Larson, I just saw her movie and she’s amazing. Miles Teller, I love this guy. I gotta get them on the show. But whoever comes on my show, I will make them look good. That’s my job. In the sketches, I think that people know that I don’t want to make them look foolish. I want to make them look good at the end of the day. I’m in on the joke and they’re in on the joke.
When did you know you were funny?
I remember I would make my parents laugh around the living room and around the house. I’m Irish and we’d have a bunch of parties with people singing and dancing and I would make people laugh.
Jimmy’s right. This was a pretty good “get” for his show.
What about your personality suits you to the talk format?
I want people to laugh with me and give them something to talk about. I want to make friends and I want people to like me. At first, it took me a little while to get comfortable doing interviews, but not too long. I’m much more comfortable doing it now.
What’s the best part of the job?
If you like pop culture, it’s the best. You get to see movies before other people see movies and tickets to any Broadway show you want and you get to hear music ten feet away from you.
Speaking of music, how cool was it to win a Grammy?
That is one of the coolest awards you can win. People see that in your office and go, “Whoa!” I keep it in my office. That was great. The Emmy was great too. We won an Emmy for Web design and then I won one for hosting Saturday Night Live. If I ever win one for The Tonight Show, I’ll give it to my parents.
Will you have Jay Leno as a guest star?
It would be fantastic. I know he doesn’t really fly to New York so much so I don’t see that really happening, but he’s got an open invitation. I’ll come to LA if he doesn’t feel like traveling. Whatever bits he wants to do or if he wants to tape something in LA and send it over, I would love that. Without him, I wouldn’t have a job.
Did Jay have any advice for you?
He has a lot of great advice through the years. We’ve talked for a long time. He’s a great guy. He’s really treating me great with this whole thing. One time he told me, “You have to make your monologue longer,” for the people who go to you for the news. So we doubled it.
What are your memories of seeing Johnny Carson on this show?
He became the thing at nighttime you could watch. I thought he came with the TV. I would beg my parents to stay up and watch that because I knew it was on really late and I was getting away with something. He’d get a laugh and I thought that was really cool. But it wasn’t at all my dream job because I didn’t know that this could be a job that you could dream about. I was just watching him and enjoying him. So the fact that there’s going to be a kid out there asking their parents, “Can I stay up late to watch The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon?” means a lot to me, and I hope I do a good job for that kid.
Top photo: James White/NBC