It looks like Jimmy Fallon will be the next challenger to step up and try to knock Jay Leno off his throne on The Tonight Show. If you believe Bill Carter over at The New York Times, and there's no reason not to given Carter's unparalleledexpertise on the subject, NBC is planning to once again attempt to rid itself of the Fidel Castro of late-night TV, this time in 2014. Supposedly, the deal's already been scribbled out in pencil and a very quiet transition is now underway behind the scenes at both 30 Rock and Burbank that would send Leno on his way once and for all and not only christen Fallon as the new host of Tonight but move the entire show back to New York City, where it was uprooted from in 1972 at the request of a more West Coast-friendly Johnny Carson.
The New York relocation is hugely important because it's something NBC isn't doing just to change things up. The network knows that after the debacle that was its hand-off of the show to Conan O'Brien in 2009 followed almost immediately by its retraction of the show, very ugly dismissal of O'Brien and reinstatement of the terminally unfunny Leno, it has to do something to prove to Jimmy Fallon that he's not going down a road to oblivion. When the whole Tonight Show thing blew up in NBC's face, I said that one of the biggest challenges the network was going to face in the wake of such a sociopathically incompetent and short-sighted fuck-up would be trying to convince even loyal talent that it valued them -- that it wasn't going to screw them over the first time the numbers went the wrong way or a better opportunity came along. The basic question I posed was, "How can anybody trust anything NBC says from this point forward?"
NBC executives know this. They know that when it comes to any discussion of pushing Leno out of Tonight in favor of somebody else -- particularly when Leno remains on top of the ratings, the same way he was last time around -- even the hungriest potential candidate for the top spot in late-night television will take their overtures with a grain of salt if he or she has a brain. And that's why, if Carter's report is true, NBC is offering to move the show to Fallon rather than Fallon to the show: it's a show of good faith. By retrofitting the show around Fallon rather than the other way around, NBC makes it known that the new host won't simply be another random successor plugged into a hallowed property steeped in stuffy tradition but the new face and attitude of a new kind of Tonight Show. Make no mistake: it's what Tonight has needed for decades and, provided NBC makes good on its promise, this could be the smartest decision the network has made, certainly talent-wise, in a very long time.
I've never been a massive fan of Fallon, meaning that he doesn't really sway me to watch a lot of Late Night, but I certainly appreciate that he has a kind of broad-based appeal that's tough to argue against. He's quirky but unthreatening, clever without being cerebral, smart but not smug. And his stint on Late Night has shown that he understands what it takes to be a star and make a splash in the age of social media. In short, he's exactly what The Tonight Show needs if it wants to survive as a powerful piece of television real estate in the coming years.
As for Leno, while Jeff Zucker and Jeff Gaspin may have moved mountains to put him back in place at 11:35pm weeknights three years ago, screwing Conan O'Brien in nearly unprecedented ways, they did so mostly out of fear of losing his ratings power to somebody else and to stave off an affiliate revolt in response to their cynical 10pm Leno show experiment. Nobody at NBC besides Zucker and Gaspin really wanted to see Leno back on Tonight, certainly not as a matter of personal preference. And what did the two Jeffs get for their splendid handling of the transition and re-transition of The Tonight Show? Fired. Zucker was canned unceremoniously in late 2010, as soon as the Comcast deal went through, and Gaspin bit the dust soon after, thanks in part to his belief that he deserved to shit in a $200,000 private bathroom.
Bottom line: Sure, Leno still pulls in the numbers, but everyone knows that it won't last -- that his relevancy has waned significantly and among the cultural tastemakers NBC wants to be able to reach out to in the future, he's practically toxic. The fact that Leno has spent the past several weeks hammering NBC's anemic ratings and various PR disasters in his opening monologues -- something I actually tip my hat to him for -- also hasn't earned him any new fans in the peacock adminisphere. Right now, he's kind of a man without a lot of friends.
But that doesn't mean NBC won't try to figure out a way to keep him around or renege on whatever plans it may have for Fallon at the last minute. I'd love to see the network finally make the decision to ditch Leno, but only a fool would bet against the guy. He's proven to be harder to get rid of than herpes.
NBC could be making a really bold, smart choice or it could fall back on the old and reliable ways we've come to expect. When it comes to this network, you've gotta wait until all the chips have fallen to see who's left with what. And even then you can't really be sure.