There isn't a plane of existence where the name Jay Leno should be mentioned in the same breath as the name Mark Twain. Unfortunately, despite this fact, it was announced on Wednesday that Leno will be receiving the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the Kennedy Center this coming October. The honor represents the highest award for comedy in the United States and effectively instills upon Leno a credibility and place in American history that he most certainly doesn't deserve. True, with one noteworthy break, Leno helmed The Tonight Show for 22 years, but honestly when the hallowed history of Tonight is mentioned, you often hear the names Allen, Parr, and of course Carson, but nobody in his right mind would drop Leno in with that company, regardless of his lengthy stewardship of the legendary property. Well, I take that back -- I guess the Kennedy Center people would.
When NBC named Jimmy Fallon as the successor to Leno on The Tonight Show, it was tough to argue that the network hadn't made a smart choice. Fallon was quirky but unthreatening, mildly clever without being the least bit cerebral, and smart but not smug. He had a broad-based appeal that would play perfectly at 11:35; the older crowd would think he was cute and endearing -- or at the very least harmless -- while the younger crowd would respond to his social media savvy. More importantly than any of that, he was a bona fide company man, an earnest lapdog who would ecstatically embrace the NBC way of shameless corporate synergy and cross-pollination. Want somebody who'll interview the entire cast of the latest Universal film while the winner of Top Chef cooks for them and Matt Lauer troubleshoots their Comcast cable issues? Fallon's your guy. Need somebody thoroughly beholden to the NBC system to the point where his balls and soul are both held in a vault in Lorne Michaels's office and he's guaranteed never to give you an ounce of trouble? Bring on Jimmy.
Here's the only problem: while his ratings have been everything NBC could've wished for, Jimmy Fallon kind of sucks. As in, his take on The Tonight Show is in some ways even worse than Leno's. It's not that Fallon doesn't occasionally do some funny bits, it's that he's so unfailingly benign and so unwilling to ever make anyone -- his guests, the audience, anyone -- the least bit uncomfortable that you feel like you need an insulin shot from all the sugar that's being pumped into your bloodstream during his show. He certainly doesn't need to be snarky or wry, that's more the torch Jimmy Kimmel is carrying forward, but Fallon and his writing staff of apparent Thought Catalogers seem so thrilled to simply be there that the occasional edge that could benefit an interview or a show beat is never even considered. Believe it or not, the show suffers because of this.
What's more, Fallon not only attempts to avoid anything that might cause a break in anyone's fun, he willfully edits out serious moments if they happen naturally. Recently, an article on Shailene Woodley claimed that during the actress's appearance on Tonight to promote Divergent, the show cut her answer to a question Fallon had asked about whether she minded being compared to Jennifer Lawrence. Woodley's answer was no-nonsense and took to task Hollywood's tendency to pit female stars against each other. Fallon's people apparently thought it harshed the vibe or something because the exchange never saw the light of day.
Then just a couple of days ago came Chris Christie's damn-near hallucinatory guest spot on Tonight in which he and Fallon did a sketch called "The Evolution of Dad Dancing" and Fallon thanked him for "standing in the ring and getting hit like that" by the press while sheepishly deflecting the conversation away from the reason the press was "hitting" him: because his administration almost certainly ordered part of the George Washington Bridge closed to punish a political adversary. Fallon is simply genetically incapable of asking a question that might get an answer that isn't 100% unicorns and rainbows. Even Leno was able to slyly hammer Hugh Grant after the guy had been busted with a hooker.
Fallon's sketches seem to aim largely at triggering the dopey nostalgia receptors in the brain, with the amusement to be gleaned from watching him and his guests dance, and sing, and rap Gen-X and Millennial favorites apparently being a limitless commodity. He gets the cast of Full House back together; he sings Ebony and Ivory with Terry Crews; and he of course pores over every possible hip-hop classic, either by lip-syncing, bringing out Justin Timberlake to do cheesy white-boy karaoke with the Roots, or editing Brian Williams intros into Baby Got Back. It's not that it's not funny or charming on occasion, it's just that it's not on occasion. It's constant. Fallon has one speed and only one speed: cloying and cutesy. He seeks out maximum Facebook viral circulation and hits precisely the insipid notes necessary to achieve that, turning The Tonight Show -- one of the most storied properties in media history -- into broadcast television's answer to Upworthy. Fallon is a living, breathing hashtag.
Now certainly Fallon knows that the word broadcast is what matters. He's aiming for the broadest possible audience and maybe that's a laudable thing in an age where media saturation has removed the old cultural touchstones we as a nation used to experience together. There will never be another Johnny Carson precisely because there can't be -- our media choices are too expansive and diverse now and it's split the audience into too many different subsets. But Fallon is trying to use social media to connect all the dots out there and give Americans something they can share in, even if they don't share it in the traditional way. The problem is that there's no meat to Fallon and that's what's needed to move his shtick beyond being just, well, shtick. Guys like Carson weren't just funny, they were insightful and empathetic; they knew when to turn on the charm but also when to turn up the class and even subtly go for the throat. They knew that there's more than one way to be entertaining. Fallon doesn't seem to grasp that yet -- although admittedly there's time for him.
As long as his ratings hold, The Tonight Show will be Fallon's for as long as he wants it. Hell, one day he may even be honored by the Kennedy Center. At which point he'll probably take the stage and do a rap battle with the cast of Friends.