After five years hosting “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” the “Saturday Night Live” alum is packing up his things, piling his band the Roots into the moving van, heading down the hall, and inching back an hour earlier to host the crown jewel of late night, “The Tonight Show.”
Speaking with reporters at the Television Critics Association press tour Fallon remembered begging his parents to let him stay up late watching the show when Johnny Carson was the host “because I knew it was on really late and I was getting away with something.”
A new generation of kids will be getting away with something when their parents let them stay up to watch “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” which premieres Feb. 17 with first guests Will Smith and U2.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘Is this your dream job?’ And my answer is it wasn’t at all my dream job because I didn’t know that this could be a job that you could dream about.”
Q. This transition seems to have gone more smoothly than the one between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. Why do you think that is?
A. After the whole Conan-Jay thing went down, I was following Jay. He was back at 11:30. I called up Jay, and I said, “Hey, I just want to let you know that I’m not gunning for your position at all. I’m very happy at 12:37 a.m., whenever they put me on. I’m in New York. I’m trying to have a baby. I’m very happy at my job. I’m just not gunning for this. I’m very happy here.” So he goes, “I appreciate that.” I said, “And when eventually you decide to step down, let’s do it the right way.” And he said, “Yeah, of course.” You just felt it was different from then on. We talk to each other every couple weeks, always giving me advice, all the way up till now. He called me and said, “I think this is going to be the year,” and I said, “All right.” And he goes, “I’d love for you to be the next guy. I think you’re going to be great.”
Q. Was it a tough sell to keep the show in New York?
A. It wasn’t easy. For me, it wasn’t a real option. I was born and raised in New York. I live in New York with my wife, and we now have a little 6-month-old baby, and she’s very cute. And so when I talked to NBC [executives], I just said, “I think New York.” I already talked with Lorne about it and I said, “We should bring it back.” It could be good. I mean, it’s been out here [in Burbank, Calif.] for 40-something years. It started in New York. Why not bring it back to New York? What’s the worst that can happen? It’s just a beautiful city. I think of New York, I think of nighttime. I just think it’s the perfect place, where it should be. I think of the lights and Times Square and Broadway and night life and the excitement and the glitz and the glamour of all that is “The Tonight Show.” I feel like booking-wise, it’s never been a problem for us. We’ve had the president of the United States on our show.
Q. Do you feel pressure to make adjustments to be more mainstream because you’re on at an earlier hour?
A. No, I don’t think so. I mean, I wish that Steve Allen and Johnny Carson were still around just to see what we’re going to do with the show because I think, when they invented this show, it was all about being fun and silly and goofy. And Steve Allen was the first guy to sit in a plate with ice cream and pretend he’s a banana split and get chocolate syrup all over him and roll around, because that’s what it should be. It should be goofy and fun and make everyone laugh. Everyone works too hard, and we’re the first thing after your local news. You watch us, and you get a good laugh, and you go to bed with a smile on your face. And that’s our job.
Q. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. Of the many things that have been said about him in the last few weeks, it seems the thing that hurt the most the parody by you and Springsteen. What does that feel like for you?
A. Well, I really did think about that before we did it because he’s been on the show. First of all, the bit was funny. I knew that. So you’ve got to go with that first when you’re making these decisions. Then secondly, I let Chris Christie know that we were going to do it. I just let him know, “The silver lining, Bruce Springsteen says your name. That’s pretty cool, right?” So I haven’t heard back yet.
Q. Could you see yourself hosting the show as long as Leno or Carson?
A. I’m 39 now. Yeah, I could stay. If I’m lucky enough, I’d love to stay that long. It’s crazy to even think that way. I’m happy I’m here five years at “Late Night.” We’re just having a good time. I’m just going to play it by ear and keep my head down and just work as hard as I can and see how long that gets me.Interview has been edited and condensed. Sarah Rodman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.