Jimmy Fallon's on holiday in Ireland a few years back, having a great time, as Jimmy Fallon generally does, but after a few too many nights spent hoisting a few too many Guinnesses, he needs a week break.
"So I plan this fishing trip at six in the morning, just so I won't drink the night before. My hotel makes me a packed lunch, a thermos, the whole thing. I'm walking to the water, the sea, and I go, Ah, it's beautiful. There was a mist coming off the sea, and out of this mist is this great old Irishman in a boat. I go, Gosh, I want to paint this. He goes, 'Ah, let me help you in there.'"
Jimmy's brogue is solid. He's an eager storyteller. Light-handed. Lighthearted. Swift.
"I'm sitting there going, Wow, this is just great. I'm going to love this. So I pour myself a coffee and he says, 'Oh, are ye enjoying yourself? Hand me yer flask there.' And he dumps the coffee in the sea and he pulls out a bottle. 'This is Jameson 1890. I only give this to special people.' By eight in the morning, I was just wasted. We didn't catch anything—there was a line in the back, but we just talked and laughed and cruised around. We had such a fun time. It was just so awesome—I don't even remember what we talked about. I probably bored him. I probably bored him to death."
That's just the lad's skittish modesty, and even that rings ebullient, not false. We're in his Tonight Show corner office at 30 Rock and his workday has only begun. His broad face is still sleepy and his tie is loose and his shirt is untucked and he's grinning and handing me a small carton of something cold.
"Let me tell you something—I do love chocolate. In fact, I'm drinking chocolate-milk coffee. Have you heard of this? Do you drink coffee at all? I have two. This is going to be great. I didn't even have a sip yet. You have to try it. You're going to freak out. This is a game changer. I want to witness this."
I'm trying to figure out which end to open... there we go.
"When was the last time you opened up a milk carton like that—grade school!"
I take a swig. It's strong. It would be better without chocolate milk, and it's no game changer, but it would be unkind to say so.
It's pretty good.
It took me years to warm up to Jimmy Fallon. Many years. In 2009, after Fallon debuted as the host of Late Night, I made a joke in Esquire about needing two blindfolds to bear watching him host a talk show. By the time I did a Q&A with Questlove, in 2013, I had been softened enough by my love of the Roots and by Fallon's peerless, eerie Neil Young to tune in, and Fallon was still bubbly and gushing, but in truth, I'd given up late-night TV, Stewart and Colbert included, in favour of reading. One of the things I read, by the estimable Emily Nussbaum, was a vicious dismissal of Fallon not long after he took over The Tonight Show in early 2014, a verbal beat-down so nasty—"The man's a lox" was Nussbaum's kindest cut—and finally so absurd—Nussbaum winds up comparing Fallon unfavourably with Ed Sullivan, a veritable fern—that it actually got me thinking about Jimmy Fallon again, and not just because I love lox deeply.
He is delighted, his eyes wide open now. No cameras, no audience, but it feels like excitement. Choco-coffee-milk. It feels good. It's almost like a talk show.
Nussbaum's Jimmy-whacking came by way of her hopes and fears for Colbert's Late Show and—God love her—her damning of late night's unyielding fetish for white-male hosts, which then got me thinking about the murderous late-night network hosting job itself.
There's nowhere to hide on Jupiter's throne—not for five nights a week, week after week, month after month, year after year. The truest, bestest scripted television show in the history of this capitalist videocracy we like to call America was The Larry Sanders Show, about a talk-show host. We saw its ugly truths—about both the job and the monomaniacs who seek and cling to it—play out in real time during the decaying and entombment of both Leno and Letterman, who were bequeathed none of Johnny Carson's singular might, a shadow of his audience, and more misery than Johnny ever leaked. Years before leaving, Dave was counting the days while Jay had long since melted to a waxen sheen. Long before the end, they were unwatchable.
It's early in his reign, and Colbert has only just begun, but goofy Jimmy Fallon's doing fine so far by playing to his strengths: music, mimicry, and games. He's still having a fantastic night every night, his guests are having a great time playing along, and the Roots remain fresh. His three to four million nightly viewers outnumber and out-youth every other rival's so far. Fallon's not lox, but he's not bad. You may not catch a fish, but you'll get wasted.
As for Jimmy himself, well, five hours a week on TV selling yourself and everything else in the world as fast as you can—first because you can, and then because you're the bell cow for two-hundred-plus show employees and the network itself, and finally because you have become the job, can barely imagine yourself not there behind the desk—might indeed feel fantastic, and ten or twenty million bucks is an unfathomable salary, but it won't buy back your soul. One must have the steel to endure it—not just choco-coffee-milk—even Jimmy Fallon, happy as hell just to be here.
Which is how we got to the Ireland story: I'm looking for some steel beneath the fairy-tale facts of life for the kid who watched Saturday Night Live in his teens, just him and a six-pack, studying it, worshipping it, making hajj to Belushi's grave, dreaming of the day he'd get a shot. Fallon made it to SNL by the age of twenty-three. After six seasons, he left and starred in two movies—Taxi and Fever Pitch—that tanked, tanked hard, and so he went back to TV, and kept working his ass off, and kept quiet while NBC tortured Conan and drained the last drops from Leno's corpse, and I'm guessing that somewhere within Jimmy Fallon must be a motherfucker with some steel, right?
"I think it's my grandfather. He was the typical great Irish cop—tall, white hair, red nose. He was friendly and happy. He loved to hear songs and sing and drink and have a great time. But also, do it the right way, be respectful, never forget where you came from—that whole thing. You don't take anything for free. You don't stop. I like to work at everything I get."
"My parents made me take the postal exam. That's how much they believed in my comedy."
He's friendly. Happy. I know not how, but he is. Born in Brooklyn, he grew up in Saugerties, a good boy, an altar boy in a blue-collar upstate town, with a family so loving that James and Gloria Fallon, his parents, named their son James and their daughter Gloria, and Little Jimmy's grandparents moved upstate with them. He worked stand-up while he went to college, a Catholic school not far from home, and left to seek his comic fortune in Los Angeles a semester before graduation.
"Well, I had already taken the postal exam. My parents made me take the postal exam. That's how much they believed in my comedy."
How'd that go?
"It was great! I loved it. I like taking tests. My parents took it with me."
"My dad and my mom took it with me."
How'd you do?
"I crushed. I thought a mailman would be a great gig. 'Oh my gosh, you get to wear shorts'—that's your uniform. It's insane. Driving a special vehicle, the steering wheel's on the other side? What is this?"
You like dogs?
"I do like dogs. I mean, people would love me. I'd be a great mailman."
I tell Jimmy that I was puzzling over his flagrant bonhomie a few days ago, eating diner breakfast with a friend—another fretful writing Jew—and we agreed that Fallon simply isn't angry. He seems to nurse no grudge, no rage, no weeping childhood wound.
"Yeah. There's no darkness on this one."
Feeling any pressure? Colbert opened big last week. And he's Colbert.
"That's the way Colbert will succeed—by being him. He's him, I'm me. Don't even compare us—to anybody."
"That's the way Colbert will succeed—by being him. He's not Letterman and I'm not Leno. No one's the new anyone. He's him, I'm me. Don't even compare us—to anybody. I'm me. He's him. Like, that's the way it is. We're totally ourselves. And that's the only way you're going to succeed. You have to be yourself, or else you can tell that it's ungenuine."
He's not wrong. Fallon's excitement seems unfeigned even in this office, but onscreen it feels simpleminded and wholly undiscerning—to me. To me, too often, the show tastes like mush and sounds like a slumber party for a Wayne's World without irony or books. But then I'm the yutz who saw Colbert work the White House Correspondents' Dinner and felt my blood rise hot, as if I myself had coldcocked W. I'm the putz who finds Primo Levi entertaining. If you can't show me a hero or a parcel of human suffering, you can at least spare me Chris Christie dancing.
"But that was a good bit! 'Dad Dancing' was a good bit for him."
Precisely why it drove me nuts. I live in north Jersey. I had my fill of Christie years ago. He's a lout.
"There's always gonna be people not liking that you have any politician on, one side or the other. And people are like, 'Ugh, you gave him softballs.' But I didn't really give him softballs—we had an actual conversation. I'm doing a variety show. I'm doing a talk show—let's have a conversation. I don't have one side or the other. My fans know that. I don't have to cater to anybody. I'm not The Daily Show. We don't want to be The Daily Show."
This isn't Jimmy Fallon's favorite topic—the softball thing, the fact that he's not tilting at windmills or fighting to save America's soul from his bunker on the sixth floor of what is, at least for the moment, the Comcast Building. It's not my favorite topic, either. In Tales of the Hasidim, Buber tells of Rabbi Zusya, who stood before the throne on Judgment Day worried that God would ask, Why weren't you Moses? Why weren't you Solomon? Why weren't you at least Maimonides? But his Creator simply asked, Why weren't you Zusya?
Jimmy Fallon's Jimmy Fallon. He'll never be the darling of the seething elites. He knows that.
Jimmy Fallon's Jimmy Fallon. He'll never be the darling of the seething elites. He knows that. He's read all about it. For years.
"We've been doing the same show since I started on Late Night. I'm here every night. I'm filling up an hour. I've done everything I've always done. I still do. I dance, I sing with people, impressions—if Trump does something crazy, or if whoever I can impersonate does something, we gotta do it. We have to. It's what I do. It's television. It's like putting out an article every day."
It's his business, show business, and now his competition has stiffened: Colbert.
"Yeah, definitely. It's good. It just makes everyone work a little bit harder. This is my Madison Square Garden. This is my home court, I'm comfortable here—this is where I play the best. I've learned from the best coaches and played with the best players. And I'm not worried. I play to win."
Do you look at the numbers? So far, so good.
"I see them now and then. When they're good, I can't help it because people will e-mail me. When they're not good, when they're stagnant, I don't hear from anybody. I talked to Jay Leno about this—he told me, 'They're gonna go up and down. Don't worry about that side of it—just do your thing and have fun.' Other people get paid to worry about those things. I don't."
Fallon has a writers' meeting waiting, and rehearsals, but first he shows me a video on his phone of his two-year-old daughter dancing.
That's so nice, I say. True: She is adorable. And so is the fact that Fallon has put music behind the clip, Elton John's "Tiny Dancer."
"I mean, come on." Fallon's lit. "The light and everything, her spinning around. That's how she dances. Just spinning."
She's literally a tiny dancer, I say.
"She actually is a tiny dancer."
On the way out the door, he points out a stained-glass portrait of Buddy Holly—rock's sweetest, whitest, least conflicted Founding Father—and a pair of framed photos, both shot from behind the Tonight Show desk.
"That's me and Billy Joel. That's Johnny and Jane Fonda.
Isn't that cool? It's the same room—that's the same exit sign. The audience is kind of the same. But look—he has a cigarette, he's using the ashtray there. I have a laptop there. That's the only difference. You go, 'Oh, it's basically the same thing we're doing.'"
That's the best product placement Apple could ever want.
"Oh, yeah. By the way, they never wanted to pay us for that."
I'm assuming they wound up paying.
"Yeah, they wound up paying. Yeah."
It's a business.
"Well, that's what TV is. We're selling things. It's television. Once you get over that, you'll enjoy it much better."
He's not wrong.
The show that night is fantastic. Benicio Del Toro, Jessica Alba, Miguel—and still it's fantastic. A bit of filmed bromance with Justin Timberlake and Jimmy, with a Will Ferrell cameo, plus a movie-title guessing game with all his guests, and a clip from Sicario, and a blown-up video of Benicio's two tortoises—he got them at a pet shop in Vegas!—humping, and yet the whole show is absolutely fantastic, and I savour each moment.
I can explain this with mob science: sitting with 250 shrieking, cawing, clapping human beings having the best time of their lives, I'm freed from thought and care. It matters not at all what we're seeing—though I'd like to think that were it a public hanging or witch burning, we'd feel concern, if not alarm. All that matters is this feeling like there's something very exciting going on, and we're part of it and it is part of us—some freak rapture beyond reason.
I can also explain my temporary insanity more simply. A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down his pants: Whatever it takes to entertain, to slap a smile on a stranger's face, Jimmy Fallon is pleased to do it. If you yourself are not that stranger—or if you need a late-night knight to channel your rage over our collective descent into national dementia—that may be your problem, not Jimmy Fallon.
My NBC keeper sat me on an aisle near the back, and Jimmy trots up the stairs as he does at show's end every night, and when he sees me standing and applauding, he lights up and stops to give me a big hug. Me. And I hug Jimmy Fallon back, hard. And I feel... fantastic. Me.
I'm circling back that night to meet him in the makeup room, but I have spent the intervening time walking around midtown thinking about the hug, and about the episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee: when Seinfeld picks up Fallon, Jimmy's wearing a tie, and just before Jimmy digs into his pancakes, he says, "This is really, really going to be a great pancake," and afterward, when Seinfeld's Corvette needs a jump, Jerry turns to Jimmy and says, "I'm glad I'm with you—you bring out my good side." This is no small thing. There's a fair chance that I've sold Jimmy Fallon's spirit short, and a smaller chance that he's actually an angel.
Fallon's being groomed to look like Terrence Howard for an Empire parody sketch, "Jimpire," and he's listening to Howard's dialogue, trying to nail the voice.
"He's almost crying in all the serious scenes," says Fallon. "He sounds like he's always on the verge of losing it."
Great show tonight, I say.
"Was it fun?" It was a lot of fun.
"It's like you're hosting a party, putting a show on. It's old-time. It's cool. Let's put on a Little Rascals—it's simple."
The hug felt great. Thank you.
"It was a surprise to me—Hey, what's up? And I hugged you like my old pal."
They're filming part of "Jimpire" on the Randall's Island waterfront, just across the Harlem River and smack under the Triborough Bridge. On the way over, he's yawning; he's been at work for nine hours now. He pulls out his briefcase—a battered brown Lederer his wife gave him for good luck when Jimmy landed Late Night, and speaking of product placement, I could use one, too—which he totes to work each day.
"It's magic. I've eaten food off of this many times."
He opens it.
"So there's three art pens, in case I feel like I want to sketch someone, one nice pen in case I have to read my writing, a giant BlackBerry Passport—the letter C doesn't work, so I can say, 'No, I didn't see Olbert last night.' A notebook where I write down my diet, the Tylenol I have to take, and this stretchy glove to pull my fingers."
In early summer, Fallon slipped on a rug in his kitchen, caught his ring finger on a countertop as he tried breaking his fall, and suffered a ring avulsion of the fourth finger of his left hand. It was a ghastly injury—six hours of microsurgery saved the finger, but Fallon spent ten days in intensive care, and he missed two weeks behind his Studio 6B desk. Months later, the finger is still in physical therapy, Fallon's still hoping to regain feeling in it, and would be even weeks later, as he recovered from falling and cutting up his other hand.
"Are we gonna see the Pepsi sign?" he asks the driver. "Did we pass it already?"
He's looking eastward, to Queens, Long Island City, but it's too late.
I ask Fallon what he drives.
"The family car is a red Land Rover. I drive a truck—F-150 King Ranch. Leno told me to get a truck. I called Leno and said, 'I'm gonna get a car. I got a place in Sagaponack, and I was thinking about this old Mercedes.' He goes, 'Yeah, yeah—there's a lot of old Mercedes.'"
Fallon's Leno is first-rate.
"I go, 'It's an SL-something.' He goes, 'Uh-huh. That's not helping.' I go, 'There's a green one and a blue one.' Jay goes, 'Jimmy, why are you getting an old car? Do you like working on old cars? Do you know how to fix a car when it breaks down?' 'No.' He goes, 'Jimmy, if I were you, I'd just get a truck. You live in a farmhouse. Get a nice truck.'"
There's a crew of forty or fifty waiting for Fallon at the shoot, which runs more than two hours in the hope of getting three or four minutes of television time. Fallon's costumed like Lucious Lyon, Terrence Howard's Empire character, in a dark topcoat and driving cap, and his facial hair is perfect, but he's still working on his dialogue. It's windy, and the traffic on the bridge above us roars like surf. I see his lips moving, but I can't hear a thing until he walks back over.
"Fun, right? We got the best crew—great audio, great location. Everything's great. Perfect. It'll turn out great."
Two hours later—twelve hours since he got to work—Jimmy's still chipper.
"What a great job the prop department did—putting a bullet in a whoopee cushion! We didn't get an Emmy last year, so we're going for it this year. We're trying. We have a fart joke that hasn't been done."
Turns out those two hours on Randall's island were all for naught. "Jimpire" ran, and it was fantastic—four and a half million YouTube viewers can't be wrong—but it ran more than ten minutes, an eon by television standards, even without the fart joke.
"Yeah, we had to cut it out. It was going to be fifteen minutes—we can't make it that long, ever. We have a show to do. The scene's so beautiful, too, the way they shot it. Heartbreaking."
Still, life is good. Last week, Fallon flew to Los Angeles for the Emmys—Tonight won an award for its social-media prowess—and now he's back behind the desk. His ratings have dropped a bit, but he's still beating Colbert. He finished taping tonight's show, squeezed through the Lincoln Tunnel to Route 3, and rode west, west through the swampland funk and dusk, west to Clifton, New Jersey, west to the Tick Tock Diner. I happened to mention the place two weeks ago, when we met in Fallon's office and I spoke of how he has no wound, no rage, no visible darkness, and Jimmy remembered the name of the joint and wanted to check it out.
"Best diner I've ever seen," he says as he steps out of the car. He's not wrong. The Tick Tock is the best diner the world has ever seen, lit by neon all night long, all night long surrounded by death. Walt Whitman still comes here. Plus Devils fans, priests, and hitmen.
Mighty generous of you, Jimmy. Thanks.
"Oh, I'm so excited about this! Are you kidding me? I'm so psyched! I'm starving. I'm so hungry I cannot wait to eat."
He's still wearing his suit pants and white shirt and tie, unknotted, with some of the makeup still on his face. It's a Tuesday night, 7.30, the place is slowish, but Jimmy Fallon is a party of one. We split an order of the Disco Fries—with mozzarella melted on top, gravy on the side—and Jimmy orders a Pattie Melt.
"It's a hamburger, but it's also grilled cheese. It's the best of both worlds. It's fantastic."
I go for the Diablo burger, and while I'll vouch for the fact that it, too, is fantastic, a Tick Tock breakfast remains your best bet.
The hardest part of the job?
"I can't turn it off. I dream about ideas."
"It's just coming up with more ideas. I can't turn it off. I dream about ideas. I had a dream the other night that I started a new job in California for a friend of mine who used to write on the show. I go, 'What do you do here?' He goes, 'Anything.' 'But what do you mean—do I go come up with ideas? Like a Web site or something? What do you want me to do?'"
You were worried?
"I felt like I wasn't fitting in and I wasn't getting the idea of what the job is. I eventually just woke myself up. I don't know what it means."
It means that you're the host of The Tonight Show. There's nowhere else to go. This is it.
"This is the thing. Jerry Seinfeld said, 'This is it. There is no job after this. You understand that. Once you do this, that's it. You don't go back to doing anything. You do the talk show. You're a talk-show host. You do it forever.' I go, 'Like the pope?' 'That's right—it's a pope job. You just do it till they're picking your head up and you mumble something and your head goes back down.'"
Fallon's Seinfeld is fantastic. Honest. And the thought of still being tethered to the desk in 2040 doesn't faze him.
"I don't even know if TV will be around. I don't know what's going to go down, but it's fun. And while you're here, you might as well do it, and have a good time doing it."
Seems like the right choice, if it's a choice.
"It is a choice," he says.
Fallon's not wrong. I'm reminded of Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor who became a psychotherapist after his liberation, wrote, "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
"Frankl," says Jimmy Fallon. "Man's Search for Meaning. I read that book while I was in the ICU—my doctor told me to read it. I highlighted quotes and things. I e-mailed all my friends. I'm like, 'Dude, you have to read this book—I know the meaning of life.'"
I have sold Jimmy way too short, not to mention life itself. Fallon is in fact an angel. His kindness in making this journey is not lost upon me. There is no gesture of love so unfelt—so small, so self-serving, so manipulative—that it is itself devoid of love.
The waiter comes, asking about the Pattie Melt.
Fallon fairly grunts with orgiastic pleasure.
"It's so deliciously perfect."
In the end, I guess there are no bad hugs. You needn't like The Tonight Show or cherish Jimmy Fallon any more than you believe in Santa Claus. It's television, after all, not lox, but, given the devouring worm awaiting us all, it's fantastic.
First published in Esquire US December 2015/January 2016 issue.