I grew up watching Carson, from an early age sneaking to the edge of the living room, way past my bedtime, to watch the monologue, to staying up for the whole show from high school through his retirement in 1992. The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was appointment television.
This week was the first week for Carson's spiritual replacement, Jimmy Fallon. We've waited 22 years for a worthy replacement, but he's finally here.
Johnny Carson took over The Tonight Show in 1962 at the age of 37, broadcasting from Studio 6B at 30 Rock in New York City, where it had always been before him, and where it's now returned with Fallon. I never knew the New York version of the tonight show. Carson moved the show to Burbank in 1972, and it was the California version I grew up with. The early years are well documented, though.
Johnny Carson injected youth into The Tonight Show when he took over for Jack Paar. Carson's first musical guest was 36 year old Tony Bennett - the heartthrob of the day. Carson had a host of young, talented writers. But it was his Midwestern charm coupled with razor sharp edgy whit that made Carson the king of late night. He was the coolest guy in the room, but was also a friend. Stars wanted to be on the show because of Carson, not because of the cachet of The Tonight Show brand.
Jay Leno took over when Carson retired, and except for a short stint by Conan O'Brian when Jay was fired, he would remain at the helm of The Tonight Show until Fallon took over this past week. But Leno never lived up to the legacy. Leno was the nice guy. The boring guy. It's almost as if Jay was trying to be the late career Carson. The soon-to-retire Carson. But Johnny had earned his place as the elder statesman - Jay hadn't. Leno tried, and never really succeeded, to appeal to Johnny's audience rather than bring in his own.
Enter Jimmy Fallon. In only a week, Fallon has injected youth into The Tonight Show. His show is fresh, edgy, and fun. Fallon is to today's audience what Carson was to 1962 audiences. This is his show, with his audience. It's a show celebs want to be on, not one they feel obligated to do just to promote a movie, TV show, or album.
While Jay's monologue always felt forced - like he'd be dead in the water without his cue cards, Jimmy's feels fresh and spontaneous. Sure, the jokes are written, but Fallon's delivery and spontaneous reactions evoke the spirit of a classic Carson monologue. Jimmy is at once your best friend, and the coolest guy in the room, in a way we haven't seen since Carson retired.
Fallon is having the time of his life, and it shows. The fun is palpable and real, not fake or forced. On his first show as host of The Tonight Show, Jimmy said he hopes to have a show that little kids want to sneak to the edge of the living room, way past their bedtime, to watch - the way he did watching Carson growing up. I think it's clear after a week that Jimmy Fallon will have a new generation of late night viewers going along for the ride from now until he rides off into the sunset.