After a rapid game of late-night musical chairs, the dust is settling on the much-anticipated new landscape of 11:30 television. This fresh vista includes lessons on the evolution of hip-hop dancing with Will Smith, and Adam Sandler serenading Drew Barrymore while newly minted “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon provides a guitar soundtrack. Meanwhile, the memory of Jay Leno quickly fades away.
At 12:30, Seth Meyers is getting comfortable behind his new desk at “Late Night.” While he’s just a few shows in, the New Hampshire-bred funnyman is continuing the genial tone set by his predecessor (and now lead-in) Fallon, and his weeknight update is showing potential.
To celebrate the new nighttime frontier, we offer a highly subjective report card looking at how the new hosts stack up. Although it’s only been a short time for Fallon and even shorter for Meyers, here are some first impressions:
‘The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’ A-
Monologue: Fallon is cheeky, sweet, and conversationally breezy with his topical humor. On occasion he enjoys his jokes far more than the audience, and there are times he beats those jokes into the ground. But there’s something endearing about that quality. He takes soft jabs at his targets, but then offers innocent retractions. Example: Ryan Seacrest announced that he’s launching his own clothing line this year. They’re pretty good clothes, but I heard that it’s impossible to get them out of the closet . . . because they’re so nice you don’t want to get them dirty!” More claws, please. B
Guests and interviews: When Johnny Carson left the “Tonight Show,” some of the biggest names of the 1990s lined up in Burbank, Calif., to wish him well. On his first night, Fallon was swamped by more than a dozen celebs. His all-star clique also arrived during the first week to congratulate him on the new show. It has resembled a buzzy, nonstop A-list cocktail party that you hope will never end. Fallon favorites such as Justin Timberlake, Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Kristen Wiig (inexplicably in character as Harry Styles) and Jerry Seinfeld have taken the sofa. Fallon’s interviews are more like banter, and feel less canned than the typical format of funny story from a celebrity followed by shameless film promotion. Even though she was on camera for all of two minutes, it was especially touching to see Joan Rivers back on “The Tonight Show.” But Fallon also needs to rein in the
interviews and dial down the effusive gushing. B
Music: Fallon’s house band, the Roots, gives his show a distinctive neo-soul edge. Bandleader Questlove and Fallon have good rapport, but unlike Paul Shaffer he’s not intrusive. So far his star-studded lineup has extended to the musical guests: Lady Gaga, U2, and Arcade Fire have played. His new time slot should afford him a chance to introduce breaking bands to a wider audience. B+
Bits and sketches: Fallon explained shortly after the news broke of his rise to 11:30 that he was not changing the format of his show. As a result, “Thank You Notes,” “Pros and Cons,” “Lip Sync Battle,” and all the other bits will thankfully continue. Tuesday’s “Lip Sync Battle” with Rudd was a good reminder of why Fallon was given the job. A+
WILDCARD: Viral-ability: Fallon’s skill at creating buzz-worthy moments on his show is what will define the new landscape of late-night television. Survival will be deemed by online views as much as ratings. Out of the gate, Fallon has already created these moments thanks to years of practice at 12:30. First lady Michelle Obama’s appearance on the sketch “Ew!”
— Christopher Muther
‘Late Night With Seth Meyers’ B+
Monologue: At the top of his first show Meyers acknowledged he isn’t planning on reinventing the wheel, and his first few outings make clear the conventional structure will be his template as he finds his footing. As a stand-up he’s already comfortable delivering the jokes, which thus far have generated mild chuckles to hearty guffaws. But the cadence of the monologues has felt a lot like “Weekend Update” sans graphics. You can, however, sense a certain giddiness from Meyers that he is able to editorialize on the jokes and interact with the crowd. B+
Guests and interviews: This was one area about which Meyers himself expressed some unease, since he’s become accustomed to interviewing fictional characters on “Update.” He shouldn’t worry. Meyers is a natural listener, lightning fast on his feet, and clearly does his homework.
An unexpected plus: His long stint as head writer on “Saturday Night Live” found him interacting closely with a lot of celebs, athletes, and musicians who will appear on his show, giving him an inside edge to offer a different look at a well-known personality.
Meyers managed to levy “SNL” knowledge into a decent interview with Kanye West that actually showed a lighter side to the often self-serious rapper. And, as nice as he is, it’s fun to see that the host isn’t afraid to push back at his guests just a little, including poking fun at Vice President Joe Biden’s State of the Union finger guns. (“If there was an NRA for finger guns, you would be the president.”) Although he may want to nip in the bud his tendency to say “That’s great” to his guests responses. B+
Music: Thus far the 8G Band, led by Fred Armisen, has been strictly utilitarian, offering straightforward and zippy interstitial and walk-on music. This will likely morph over time as the band asserts its personality. They certainly seem content. Armisen has been amusing with his fictional projects bit at the top of the show, but that could get old and what are they going to do when he leaves to work on “Portlandia”? Hopefully, we’ll soon learn who will be Armisen’s proxy during his time away. B+
Sketches and bits: Meyers has only debuted a few so far including Armisen’s banter, “Venn Diagrams,” and “Fake or Florida,” which were funny but went on too long “SNL”-style. So far some of the funniest, and most endearing, moments have been the self-deprecating stories he’s told about himself, which serve not only as solid laughs but a way for the audience to get to know him. B
WILDCARD: Set: Obviously, NBC spent most of its budget on Fallon’s lavish new “Tonight Show” digs, since Meyers’s monologue backdrop looks like he wandered onto “Jeopardy!” (I kept expecting category titles and dollar amounts to pop into the blue screens behind him.) His tiny desk and uncomfortable looking chairs also give off an air of Fisher-Price’s My First Talk Show Set. But he gets extra points for the veiled Russian nesting doll with Stefon’s face on it. C+
— Sarah Rodman