The lovable late night host talks about his “weird upbringing for a comedian” (it was happy!) and his formula for making people laugh.
Comedy’s most lovable wiseacre, 41-year-old Jimmy Fallon is the perfect host. He invited audiences into his hilarity-filled world in six seasons on Saturday Night Live, anchoring “Weekend Update” and playing a gallery of fools from stoner Jarrett to boy band superstud Wade to Senor Guadalupe Ramirez who can never find the right words in English. He launched a brief, but endearing big screen career (Almost Famous, Taxi, Factory Girl), and then became the funnyman to whom a generation falls asleep, hosting NBC’s Late Night from 2009-2014, then taking the reins on The Tonight Show, replacing Jay Leno, immediately thereafter. He’s won Emmys, published bestselling books (Thank You Notes), recorded hit, Grammy-winning albums (including 2012’s Blow Your Pants Off, featuring collaborations with Bruce Springsteen and Justin Timberlake), and seems to love what he does as much as audiences love it. Jimmy Fallon is, unquestionably, the master of his own late-night domain. Its good work if you can get it, and Fallon gets it good.
Let’s do the time warp. You grew up in Saugerties, New York, which has been a virtual wellspring of comic talent through the years. What was growing up there like for you? When did you know you had to be a performer?
I grew up in a big Irish family, and we’d have big parties all the time and everyone was always grabbing a microphone and singing a song or something. That was kind of a family ritual, the kind of thing that would happen as often as it didn’t. I figured I had to get in on the act somehow, even when I was really little, so I’d grab a microphone and go out there and stomp around and do my thing too.
What kind of “things” were you doing?
My family loved it when I’d do impressions of celebrities they knew, so I never stopped doing them. I was good at it. Like really good at it. I would watch Rocky when I was 8 years old and by the end of the movie I’d feel like I was a boxer and I could slug a flank of beef. It was crazy. I’m 8 years old and I’m working out and punching frozen meat and talking like Sylvester Stallone. My family loved it!
Who was your best impression?
Jimmy Cagney, hands down. Cagney was my first impression and, I think, my best. I’ve been doing Jimmy Cagney my entire life. Seriously, I was a baby when I started doing Jimmy Cagney. I think I was 2 years old and I would just say, “You dirty rat.” But right there, I’d get a laugh. My Mom would say, “Jimmy, do Jimmy Cagney,” and I’d go, “You dirty rat.” I’m 2 years old. Those were almost my first words. It was very big.
The stereotypes about comedians is that they all barely survived horrible childhoods and are now bitter misanthropes who only cope with the world by making jokes about it.
Wow! That is harsh! And probably true a lot of the time! (Laughs)
That’s not your story, though.
Yeah, I know! (Laughs) I have a really weird upbringing for a comedian: I was loved a lot and I was pretty happy as a kid. My kindergarten teacher wrote down on my report card that I smiled too much. Was that a bad thing?
Comedy, like professional baseball, comes with a lot of superstitions. Do you have any?
I don’t know. Maybe. Is it superstitious to put the fate of your entire career in the hands of a Troll Doll? (Laughs)
That’s no more or less ridiculous than wearing the same jock strap for 162 baseball games.
Right! And, probably, less offensive to my neighbors! (Laughs)
Uh, Troll Doll. What’s the story?
For high school graduation, someone gave me a Troll Doll, and I figured out how to build a stand-up act around it. The celebrity impersonations I’d been working on my entire life – Bill Cosby, Pee-wee Herman, Casey Kasem, Bullwinkle, all these people – I put them all together into an audition for a Troll Doll commercial. It was part of my act for, like, five years and it worked. It was my thing. People loved it, so I kept doing it. And then one time, it just didn’t work.
That changed everything?
Well, the time it didn’t work was when I auditioned for Saturday Night Live, which was a job I wanted more than anything in the world.
So I go in, and I audition for Saturday Night Live. I think I just had a bad set that night – it happens sometimes – and I just didn’t get the job. They just weren’t buying it. But then they asked me back for another audition a year later, but they told me, “We’ve already seen the Troll Doll. Don’t bring the Troll Doll.” I got the job without the Troll Doll, but I wouldn’t have my career without it.
There are a lot of motivations for being a performer. You’ve done the stand-up circuit. You’ve been in feature films. You’re out there for a live audience every weeknight, then broadcast into millions of homes. What’s your motivation?
Oh, that’s easy. All you need is one person laughing. If you can get one person laughing, you’ve found your reason for being. If you’ve got more than one person laughing, you’ve got a party and you can’t wait to do it again. And again. If you’re lucky enough to do it over and over again, then you might have a career. There’s nothing like being onstage live. I’ve got a lot of nights of walking offstage going, Remember this, remember this, remember this.
It seems like you’re having an awful lot of those nights on The Tonight Show. You’ve made the show both wildly entertaining and culturally relevant again. People actually talk about what happened on Fallon. What does it take to do that job well?
On the show, I’m the adult, believe it or not. I’m the host. That’s my job. I have to make sure my guests have a good time. It’s like throwing a party at your house every day. You have to make sure there’s enough food and everyone’s got something good to drink and everyone’s happy and the music is good. I can have fun too, but I have to make sure everybody else is taken care of first. That’s actually pretty cool. It allows me to pretend I’m a grown-up for an hour every day.
You’ve been doing this a long time, and you seem to be getting better and better. What’s the secret?
I’m really intrigued by Malcolm Gladwell and his book, Outliers. That whole 10,000 hours to mastery idea? I’m kind of banking on it. Right now, we’ve done two years of The Tonight Show and I did, like, five years of Late Night before that. I don’t think I have 10,000 hours yet, but I’ve got my fingers crossed that I’ll be brilliant when I do.