Less cranky than David Letterman. More hip than Jay Leno. Less Hollywood than Johnny Carson. As silly as Steve Allen. Nicer than Kimmel, funnier than Conan. And more musical than all of them.
Jimmy Fallon believes in party games.
Fallon has a reverence for the job he is about to assume as host of NBC's "The Tonight Show." Beginning Feb. 17 he aims to restore the zany party atmosphere, lower the age of the average viewer, increase the social-media presence and generally drag the whole operation not only back to New York but into the Millennial consciousness.
Making stops at NBC affiliates across the country last fall en route to the prized chair he'll occupy, and taping promos with Adele Arakawa and Kyle Clark at KUSA, Fallon repeated familiar lines to critics: He won't change the show he's already been doing in late night.
"The Tonight Show" was never his goal. "I never thought that this was a job when I was growing up," Fallon said. "I just assumed, that's Johnny Carson, that's his thing. He lives forever." You don't set out to be Johnny Carson any more than you would aim to be the Empire State Building, he said. "'Saturday Night Live' was my big goal."
Check "SNL" and "Late Night" off the list.
On to the earlier hour. Really early in this time zone: The fact that "The Tonight Show" airs at 10:35 p.m. locally has helped make Denver the show's No. 5 market.
Fallon, 39, is nothing if not respectful, playing the humble inheritor. He refers to his 63-year-old predecessor as "the great Jay Leno."
As a child in upstate New York, he just assumed he'd someday get a job working for IBM like his father. It was his vocal impressions on radio that got him noticed. He won $200 in a radio contest at age 17, doing a voice bit with a troll doll. That led to standup gigs, demonstrating his old Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld, Pee Wee Herman, Casey Casem and Bullwinkle impressions, he says, sounding a tad nostalgic.
He dropped out of college with 15 credits left to go, moved to L.A. with "suitcase, guitar, troll doll and all the money we could get from relatives. Everyone told me it was a mistake. I went, I struggled, I figured it out." A Brillstein Grey agent with connections to "Saturday Night Live" eased the way. Eventually, Lorne Michaels pushed NBC to accept Fallon as host of "Late Night," threatening to leave when the network balked.
And now, after the extended mess of Jay Leno-not-Jay Leno, and with Michaels serving as executive producer, NBC is promoting Fallon's ascension to "Tonight" like a perfect Shaun White half-pipe. Will he deliver or will he slip on the slopestyle? White slipped.
Some of the best advice Fallon's been given was from Stephen Colbert: "He said, I look at my job as a joy machine. When you have fun, everyone has fun. You're throwing a party every night."
Salute to Steve Allen
Fallon credits Steve Allen, who hosted "Tonight Starring Steve Allen" — the first iteration of the show that eventually became "The Tonight Show" — with inventing the goofy stunt sketches that he has made new again.
"He was the first guy to sit in a giant bowl, and they put ice cream and chocolate syrup on him. Way before Letterman, Allen was doing the human banana split."
He thinks Allen would approve of the mischief he's making.
"It should be silly. We work too hard, we take things too seriously. Let me do the work. Prank phone calls, fun things, laughing. It's fun to laugh on television. And genuinely laughing, sometimes crying in a happy way."
He's famous for that. And controversial. Not being able to keep a straight face isn't an asset for improv sketch artists or "SNL" regulars, but it works for a late- night host.
Lately, Fallon's musical knock on Chris Christie with Bruce Springsteen, his game of Egg Russian Roulette with Tom Cruise and the ongoing Justin Timberlake rap smackdowns have distinguished his style. If Leno is known as the hardest-working comic in the business, Fallon may be the most playful.
Taping promos, meeting advertisers, working the press, he evinces a regular-guy lack of pretention. (Arakawa sewed a button on his jacket after his physical shtick jumping over the 9News anchor desk caused a slight wardrobe casualty.)
Fallon wants viewers to believe that nothing will change — "we've been doing 'The Tonight Show' for five years."
But that's not quite true. The earlier timeslot, for starters, will bring new prominence, easier bookings and potentially a wider audience.
Without explicitly knocking his rivals, Fallon notes, "There are ways to be creative and not be mean." From playing hit songs on toddler's instruments (a bit that went viral when he and The Roots first performed "Call Me Maybe" with Carly Rae Jepson), to dousing tough guy Jason Statham in a game of water war, Fallon has a fun variety-show angle.
First-week guests include Will Smith, U2, Jerry Seinfeld, Kristen Wiig, Lady Gaga, Michelle Obama and Fallon's musical-parody soulmate, Timberlake.
He's got the social-media crowd playing his hashtag games, but can he keep "The Tonight Show" at No. 1? Will Fallon even begin to pump NBC's deflated ratings back to the 6 million viewers Leno once amassed for his bland act? Or will the social-media buzz translate to the kind of TV ratings that doomed Conan O'Brien on NBC?
Fallon's looser approach will mean an adjustment for longtime Leno fans.
He may struggle, but he'll figure it out.
Joanne Ostrow: 303-954-1830, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/ostrowdp