The times, they are a changin’, as Bob Dylan famously sang. Though most would sadly agree that the change has been pretty bad and is getting worse by the day, for Jimmy Fallon it’s all good.
For Fallon, change has come at precisely the right time – 12:30 a.m., to be exact, Monday to Friday, on NBC, where he has held court since March 2 as the new host of "Late Night," the venerable talk show that made stars out of David Letterman and the newly departed Conan O’Brien.
Fallon, 34, best known up until now as a member of the cast of "Saturday Night Live" from 1998-2004, is more than ready to embrace the high-profile challenge of stepping into O’Brien’s very successful shoes. The career shift came at a perfect time, as Fallon tried movies to mixed success and was eager to return to his standup roots.
“I’m putting everything, everything I got into this. And I really want to be around for a long time so I’m really focused,” Fallon said during a recent interview.
Of course, hosting a top entertainment show comes with some cool fringe benefits, like getting to meet childhood idols. Day One of the show brought a big favorite into the studio at Rockefeller Plaza – Van Morrison.
“I … grew up an Irish kid and, you know, he comes on your iPod in your brain when you’re born. He’s just like — he’s one of my favorites of all times. The fact we have Van Morrison on alone should be a shout-out to all my Irish friends going, ‘All right,’” Fallon laughs.
The luck of the Irish is exactly what Fallon is hoping for as his show takes on the challenges of carving its own place in the late night landscape. And he’s surely entitled to a large helping of it, as he’s a proud Irishman through and through.
“It’s really, really great — I was very happy to be raised Irish,” says Fallon. “We grew up totally having a party — we were the Irish family. Across the street from us we had a great Italian family. Between the both of us there’d be a party every weekend.”
The parties first got underway in Brooklyn, where Fallon was born in 1974 and raised for the early part of his youth, until he and his folks and sister Gloria left the city for upstate Saugerties.
“My dad fixed machines at IBM in Brooklyn and then moved upstate. And my mom, she had a bunch of jobs here and there but ended up being the best mom; she raised me and my sister,” Fallon said.
“I have a lot of relatives that are tall, red-faced, white hair people. My parents are both Irish; my dad’s Irish and German and my mom’s Irish and Norwegian.
“Cork is where I think we’re from. I’ve got to do the research. I never went into ancestry.com but I should have done that.”
Fallon’s first trip to Ireland came courtesy of his sister, who was studying on a scholarship at a university in London. Gloria won an essay contest, and her reward was to bring a friend over to visit for a week. Her preferred pal turned out to be little brother Jimmy, and the two of them skipped over to Ireland.
“I got my first credit card and we went to Ireland and we went to Kinsale, and I just was blown away by how nice and gorgeous people were. And, yeah, I mean I love it so much,” he says, adding that he’s been back there “numerous, numerous” times since.
His affinity for his Irish roots isn’t surprising, given that the Fallon family home was devoid of drama and always full of music and laughter and fun.
“It’s that Irish personality where, you know, I wasn’t one of those people that needed to kiss the Blarney Stone. I was kind of always talking. I came from a family of just entertaining people. I mean, both sides of my family are really, really funny entertaining people,” he says.
“They would have parties and they would sing, you know, have a microphone set up with a reel to reel and some speakers and just — everyone would sing songs. Even though we weren’t famous, you know, we were a performing family pretty much.”
Perhaps it’s too strong to say that Fallon’s career was at a crossroads when the opportunity to take the helm from Conan O’Brien presented itself. But he was ready for a new challenge, and they don’t come much bigger than fronting a successful and profitable network late night show.
“You know, I got my shot at the movies. I love standup live and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I wanted to try movies and so I gave my shot at the movies. I had two shots and I didn’t really do it,” Fallon says.
The notion of Fallon one day replacing O’Brien — who grew restless in his "Late Night" role to such an extent that NBC inked him to a new deal in 2004 that guaranteed he’d take over from Leno this year — was always a definite possibility in the mind of Lorne Michaels, the creator of SNL who also produces "Late Night."