Jimmy Fallon And The Rise Of Tebowie
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There may be no knife in Jimmy Fallon’s hand, but he is wielding one fierce-looking ax. It’s early May, and the Late Night host is showing off “the craziest-looking guitar ever,” just one of the oddball items that decorate his corner office at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York. (The most bizarre: A three-foot long plastic pickle, housed in a glass case embedded in the ceiling. It’s a Late Nighttorch of sorts: predecessor Conan O’Brien passed it on to Fallon with a note explaining that he’d gotten it from David Letterman’s staff upon taking over the hosting gig himself in 1993.) The guitar in question is a screamingly metal Dean Razorback, modified by the manufacturer especially for Fallon. Called the Gathedral, its body is crafted from stained glass, a medium for which Fallon has an affinity (a stained-glass portrait of Buddy Holly hangs over a nearby couch). “Check this out,” he says, pushing the tone knob. The body lights up: Church is in session. “Pretty rad, right?”
In between show and tell, Fallon is talking up his new album Blow Your Pants Off, a collection of some of his most beloved (and viral) musical-comedy bits from Late Night, along with a handful of new tunes. It’s his second comedy album, after 2002’s Grammy-nominated The Bathroom Wall, a mix of wacky songs and live stand-up material released at the height of his fame as a Saturday Night Live cast member. What’s most impressive about the new album – aside, perhaps, from the bottomless shot of Fallon on the cover – is the sheer star power of the names involved. Besides Colbert, Vedder and the Boss, there are guest appearances by Paul McCartney, Justin Timberlake, Dave Matthews, Big & Rich and newscaster Brian Williams. And the famous musicians Fallon doesn’t play alongside, he just plays: The album features his spot-on impersonations of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and David Bowie (or, more accurately, Tebowie – a clever hybrid of Ziggy Stardust and Jesus-loving QB Tim Tebow).
That so many people are so familiar with Fallon’s uncanny Neil Young despite the show’s working-person-unfriendly 12:35 a.m. time slot is a testament to the power of the Internet, a medium Late Night With Jimmy Fallon embraced early on. (Very early on, in fact: Months before his March 2009 debut, Fallon began hyping his show with a series of comic Webisodes.) “The Internet’s the best thing that ever happened to us,” says Fallon, who boasts more than 5.6 million Twitter followers. “Johnny Carson didn’t have that – you couldn’t watch an Art Fern bit that he did the next day.” He cites Obama’s April slow jam performance: While an estimated 2 million people watched that night’s show (a two-year high), the president’s bit reached millions more eyeballs on the Internet, ultimately surpassing 5.6 million hits on Late Night’s official YouTube channel.
Talking with Fallon, it becomes clear that he’s still somewhat taken aback by the caliber of musicians he’s had the opportunity to work with over the past few years. “Any comedy album that has Justin Timberlake, Paul McCartney, Eddie Vedder, Dave Matthews, Bruce Springsteen – that’s pretty crazy,” says Fallon, who’s dressed preshow-casual, in an untucked shirt and corduroy pants. “If I was 15-year-old me, I would be like, ‘Oh my God, this is awesome!’” He pauses. “Though I’d probably be like, ‘Who’s Dave Matthews?’ because he doesn’t exist yet.”
Not all his musical collaborators are game right away, though. Vedder, for instance, wasn’t going to do “Balls In Your Mouth” until Fallon physically demonstrated how he’d have the Pearl Jam frontman swoop into the camera frame to pick up the song. “He starts laughing,” Fallon recalls. “And from that move, that one move, he’s like, ‘OK, I’ll try it.’ Sometimes it takes some convincing. ‘What is this? Are you gonna make fun of me?’ We want to play with you, not use you. We want to score; we’ll make sure you score as well.”
Making sure everybody scores requires a level of flexibility on Fallon’s part, and he’s more than happy to bend to ensure a guest performer’s comfort: “We’re totally game to change everything.” He points to his duet with Paul McCartney on the whimsical “Scrambled Eggs,” which expands on the Beatle’s placeholder opening verse to “Yesterday” (“Scrambled eggs/Oh, my baby, how I love your legs”). The famously vegetarian McCartney didn’t want to sing a line about “chicken wings,” so he suggested “tofu wings” instead – a negotiation that he and Fallon worked into their back-and-forth in the final version of the song.
Sometimes Fallon gets his way, like when he persuaded Springsteen to wear a wig, over the Boss’s initial objections (he imitates Springsteen’s rasp: “What are you trying to do to me, man?!”), and sometimes he doesn’t, like when he suggested the Commander in Chief sex-up his delivery. “At the end of the slow jam, he goes, ‘Aw, yeah,’” Fallon relates. “I go, ‘If you want you can go more ‘Awwww.’” The proposal was met with a terse presidential edict: “I’m not gonna do that.” “I go, ‘Alright, but if you wanna get a little spicy…’ He goes, ‘Nope.’ I’m like, ‘No problem. I just had to ask.’”
NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, who’s the usual straight man in Fallon’s double-entendre-laden slow jam bit, says he goes through this sort of negotiation every time. “Anybody who thinks our slow jams are racy has never seen the first draft of what the writers try to get me to do,” he reveals. (Williams, it should be said, still exhibits a much higher threshold for spiciness than does the POTUS.) In the end, the newscaster says, it all comes down to trust: “The truth is, they have my back, and they would never have me say something that would be unsavory for my line of work.”
Williams also credits Fallon for “simply having the good taste to have one of the great bands in all the land as his house band.” He adds, “I can’t tell you how great it is to work in this building. The Roots have a band room and you walk by and you pray the door is open because you can hear [drummer] Questlove working out with them what’s going to be that night’s walk-on music, or, Lord knows, what’s going to be on their next album.” And Fallon realizes just how lucky he is to have The Roots, an eight-piece known for their versatility and encyclopedic knowledge of popular music. He credits them with the success of “History Of Rap,” a three-minute survey of three decades of hip-hop, from the Sugar Hill Gang to Jay-Z, he performed with Justin Timberlake in 2010 (the viral hit has since spawned two sequels). “‘History Of Rap’ could not be done on any other show,” Fallon asserts. “There’s no way. There’s just too many different beats, and tunes, and intros and outros that only Questlove and those guys could handle. If you hear it, you’re just like, ‘Whoa, how are they doing this?’”