The Roots were good. And Robert De Niro was a good sport. And Justin Timberlake does good impressions of John Mayer and Michael McDonald. And Van Morrison is good at mumbling song lyrics.
Alas, I don’t have much else that’s good to say about the premiere of “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” early this morning. The NBC talk show wasn’t a legendary late-night train wreck so much as a train stalled between stations, going nowhere, filled with impatient passengers. I guess Jimmy Fallon was good at not being so bad he’d make it into the Chevy Chase Bad Talk Show Hall of Fame.
Fallon appeared nervous from start to finish, which is understandable given the inevitable first-night jitters and the pressures of stepping into such a high-profile gig. But throughout the hour, he failed to reveal glimmers of charisma beneath his anxiety -- the Fallon we might encounter on less nerve-wracking nights. With his wide eyes and soft voice, he was just kind of vacant, as blandly nondescript as his predecessor, Conan O’Brien, was present and sharp.
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The material was notably lackluster, too. After a logy monologue with some generic political jokes, Fallon introduced “Slowjammin’ the News,” in which his forgettable lines were mashed-up with music and lyrics by the Roots, the house band. A segment called “Lick It for Ten,” for which Fallon brought three audience members on stage to tongue various objects for $10, was a bust -- neither a send-up of gross reality-TV challenges nor a funny exercise in itself. Did “Lick It for Ten” represent a show putting its best foot forward? I hope not.
As an interviewer, Fallon fell short, although he did set a major hurdle for himself by making the famously laconic and vague Robert De Niro his first guest. He stuck too closely to the loose scripting that had been established in advance -- a list of questions requiring one word answers from De Niro -- thereby limiting any chance for spontaneous banter. Fallon’s impression of De Niro to De Niro rang hollow, too.
The Timberlake segment was easier to watch. Timberlake is a more comfortable guest, and he and Fallon are friends, having worked together on the Barry Gibb Talk Show sketch on “Saturday Night Live.” Fallon egged on Timberlake to do singing impressions, which was amusing enough until we saw where the bit was going -- straight into a beer-label plug, with Timberlake singing a jingle in his Michael McDonald voice. So much for comedy for comedy’s sake.
Will Fallon improve? I hope so. Perhaps if the writers step up their game and Fallon relaxes, “Late Night” will find a groove. Maybe the producers should give Fallon a sidekick, someone with whom he can josh and tease. As it is, he seems like a lone deer in the spotlights.
Did you watch? Did you like the show more than I did?