Attending the taping of a television show can be an exhilarating experience. When I was a teenager, my father was a writer and producer on The Cosby Show, and despite spending time on set during rehearsal days, hanging in the writers’ room, meeting everyone in the cast and crew, there was still something special about seeing the show unfold, laughing loudly as instructed by the warm-up comic, and applauding when the applause lights blinked. That was nearly 30 years ago, and television hasn’t changed all that much.
By the time Saugerties’ most famous son Jimmy Fallon took over The Tonight Show last month, he’d already shaken up the world of late-night television at Late Night. Late Night originated in 1982, with host David Letterman pulling in a younger audience thanks to an irreverent take on the talk show format. The show’s next host, Conan O’Brien didn’t shake up the formula too much, adding a Harvard Lampoon air to the proceedings.
But Fallon, who cut his teeth in the public’s eye on Saturday Night Live, melded the sketch comedy aesthetic of his former gig with the foundation laid down by his Late Night predecessors and quickly carved out his own niche. One of his savviest moves turned out to be convincing the Roots, a hip-hop band from Philadelphia who spent much of their time on the road, to settle down in New York City. The group’s musical chops and comfort with comedy proved vital to Fallon’s Late Night success.
So when Fallon got the Tonight Show nod, he repeatedly told interviewers he didn’t plan on changing too much. As an audience member, Fallon’s Tonight Show really isn’t much different than his Late Night. The new studio is on the same floor as the former, and the process of picking up free tickets, lining up too close to complete strangers, shuffling through security and finally being seated in the theater is all quite familiar. (Veteran Tonight Show’s audience members may notice a bigger change, though. A Midwestern couple on line ahead of us last week said they greatly preferred the NYC experience, where audience members are lined up in a more equitable and civilized way than the unpleasant cattle call they described having gone through in Burbank a few years ago for Leno’s show.)
As with just about all studios on television, Studio 6B at Rockefeller Center is much smaller than it looks. It appears to be roughly the same size as Studio 6A, where Late Night was shot during Fallon’s five-year run, though it all looks considerably newer. Gone are the rows of “band benches” near the back, where some members of the audience were kept before they were marched across the stage onto platforms behind the musical guests during Late Night. Otherwise, that’s it. Everything else is pretty much the same. The Roots – augmented for the Tonight Show with two former members of the Dap-Kings on horns – are in roughly the same spot, as is announcer Steve Higgins, Fallon’s foil during the monologue.
There is a temptation to feel swindled by the coaching, the pre-show exhortations to be an energetic, enthusiastic crowd, the applause signs and the producer just off camera waving frantically to ensure everyone gets the message. Do not give in to that temptation, because attending the Tonight Show is a blast. The scripted moments – much of the monologue, skits, etc… – are funny, but Fallon really shines in improv. Two mistakes in particular – one left in, and another cut out during the show’s lone re-shoot – proved Fallon’s off-the-cuff mettle. The first came following his monologue, when the Saugerties native sat behind his desk and spoke of how everyone involved in the Tonight Show is always looking to get better; the only problem was that he said “Late Night” rather than “The Tonight Show.” He caught himself, paused, and quickly added, “You know how you write on your checks, 2012?”
Fallon’s rapport with his guests is comfortable, whether he’s good friends with them – as he was with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore last week – or if they’re likely just professional acquaintances – as with the evening’s musical guest, country singer Dierks Bentley.
Attending a taping of the Tonight Show is not unlike a roller coaster. There is a long wait beforehand, and suddenly you’re locked in and enjoying the experience. Then, before you know it, you’re on the street, walking a little taller and hoping you can do it all over again soon. In the case of the Tonight Show, you’ll have to wait six months before trying for tickets again, but as is often humorously pointed out by the staff, those tickets are absolutely free.
For information on attending a taping of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, visit: www.showclix.com/event/thetonightshowstarringjimmyfallon.