“The Tonight Show” has a 60-year legacy now of iconic moments that have been either replayed ad infinitum in clip fests or completely forgotten. In the latter case, it’s usually the result of said clip being overplayed in years past and perhaps tucked away in the vault. In other cases, they’ve been forgotten completely because of the lack of footage available to prove it. Considering few of the Steve Allen “Tonight” episodes exist, it’s sometimes impossible to prove he invented every late-night TV routine used since. In the case of Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, some moments have been lost because NBC was quietly erasing the early, expensive color videotapes from the early 1960s.
But what iconic elements from “Tonight Show” yore could possibly recur based on how history almost always repeats? In the age of Jimmy Fallon, you might see some of those things return based on his conscious reverence for the franchise’s history. Or, they could just happen organically without Fallon even being aware they’ve been done before.
Steve Allen’s Extreme Stunts
Jimmy Fallon has already acknowledged that Steve Allen was the first to bring the idea of wild stunts to the late-night landscape. In the 1980s and ’90s, David Letterman was more or less the only guy doing that after Johnny Carson became older and stayed behind the desk more often. Jay Leno didn’t do much in the way of stunts either, nor do any of the current late-night hosts.
So far, we’ve seen Fallon do a number of stunts that might be considered borderline dangerous. The giant bubble body suit soccer games in the 30 Rock elevator lobby may not be done again as they were on “Late Night”, though we’re likely to see other stunts. Fallon’s races with guests through the hallways of 30 Rock on some kind of contraption may be seen again as a throwback.
As a reference to Steve Allen’s quote on the first “Tonight Show”: Stunts on this late-night franchise may go on forever.
Jack Paar Walking Off the Show Over a Risque Joke
Even though Jack Paar had numerously interesting moments during his reign on “The Tonight Show”, it seems most analysis is about his famous walk-off in 1960 over a risqué joke. In those days, a joke about a toilet was considered a network no-no long before anyone thought a late-night host would leap far beyond the red line. Paar realized the ridiculousness of it and made a powerful statement walking off in the middle of a show.
Will we ever see that again in the Fallon era? He isn’t like CBS’s Craig Ferguson who’s constantly fighting the FCC with his salty tongue. Someday, it may catch up with Ferguson if he inherits David Letterman’s 11:35 p.m. slot. A walk-off with Ferguson would be even more spectacular than Paar’s was.
For Fallon, he seems too gentle to bother stirring the pot with a controversial joke, so you can probably expect a gentler ride. Even if he does do something wrong, Fallon would probably apologize with another bit impersonating a musical icon.
Johnny Carson Wielding Power in Products, Clothing, and Politics
One thing people have forgotten about Johnny Carson’s 30-year reign on “The Tonight Show” is that he influenced pop culture more than any other celebrity during his early days. He introduced people to various games, popularized the turtleneck shirt, and even caused a run on toilet paper after a joke in a monologue. Some say he also influenced public opinion on President Nixon during the Watergate scandal. It was power that Jimmy Fallon may have if he continues to ride a crest in ratings.
Would Fallon use that power to influence the sale of certain products, or even the state of politics? He’s already promoted numerous video games when on “Late Night” that likely boosted sales. And he’s already been seen in various commercials, with likely more to come.
Regardless, Fallon seems too down-to-earth to abuse any of his power. Carson took his own clout to surprising places when his power grew in later years. Once Fallon becomes self-aware of his power, he could influence what you buy and who wins in politics. Based on past “Late Night” shows, that could be more video games and Michelle Obama.
Jay Leno Showing the Dumb Side of America
It’s possible that Jay Leno’s brand of showing the dumb side of America went away with the great chinned one. No matter what you thought of Leno, he brought his own style that can’t really be imitated well. While some people didn’t mind seeing the ignorance of America through street interviews, some may wish that Fallon keeps it going.
Thankfully, it’s not Fallon’s style other than to perhaps belittle some of the audience members during the faux game show segments. Even then, it’s all done as broad absurdism over the light depression that set in seeing the empty-headed populace in the Leno era.
No matter how many iconic elements of “The Tonight Show” resume through Fallon, some of them may turn up years from now when Fallon nears retirement. By then, far too many people will likely think Fallon invented them all without knowing the show’s comedic structure is built to be in endless recycle mode.