I’ve been seeing Jimmy Fallon’s name in the news a lot lately, ever since he took over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno. Slate mentioned his “ultimate nice-guy persona.” The L.A. Times discussed his “signature humility.” The Hollywood Reporter called him “simple and ego-less,” and Variety cited his “‘aw shucks, I’m so happy to be here’ posture” in their review. The vibe you get is: sure, he’s nice, but is that his only talent?
Those are the views of insiders, writers who regularly get access to people like Fallon and his guests. Would you like to hear from an outsider? Yes, that’s me. I don’t get fancy interviews with fancy stars. When a star like James Gandolfini dies, I can’t spend a 1000-word obituary talking about how great he was to me, like Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter. Like you, I judge them on their outer merits. That ought to count for something, right?
Having said that, Jimmy Fallon was the best celebrity encounter I’ve ever had. Let me tell you why I’m rooting for him in late night, despite my love for Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert.
My friend Elza and I see a movie called Startup.com in May 2001 at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles. As we walk out onto another warm evening on Santa Monica Boulevard, Elza says, “Did you see who that wa…?” I’m like, “Wait a minute, I left my hat.” I turn around and walk about fifty feet back to the box office and tell the usher my problem. He lets me in the door with a sort of smirk, like we both know why I’m really asking, though the truth is I have no idea what he means. I walk into the lobby where I see: Jimmy Fallon? Getting popcorn with a buddy? Really? (By the way, Fallon is at an unknown movie with an unknown – to me – gray-haired guy. He isn’t climbing a ladder where every rung says “star-fucker.”) I know Fallon from Saturday Night Live. Another thing I know is that my then-girlfriend, Jenny, loves him, and she had almost come to the movie with Elza and me.
I walk into the Nuart theatre, empty except for the ushers cleaning it. I grab my hat and think, huh. Should I get Jimmy Fallon’s autograph? Jenny would want it. I walk back out into the lobby and see that Jimmy Fallon is standing around, without his friend, staring at the posters of classic films. Hm, I think, if there’s ever a time to approach a celeb, it’s now. I see Elza, a little overdoing it on the nonchalance thing. How did he get past the usher? I say to Elza quietly, I should get a signature for Jenny, right? But on what? Elza is always two moves ahead: he points to those stacks of hipster postcards that are kept in places like this. I think he even had a pen. WTF am I gonna say? I rehearse it in my mind twice before I step up. Then…
I say, “Excuse…” and before I can even get “…me, I never do this, but my girlfriend…” Fallon has already spun around, stuck out his hand to shake mine, and said “It’s cool, I’m Jimmy, what’s your name?” in the friendliest, nicest tone, like he’d heard all about me. Flabbergasted, I say, “Uh, Daniel.” He goes, “Great, I’m Jimmy, how are you man?” I say, “Uh, good, sure, thanks,” and then I go into my prepared thing and he says “Of course!” He gets her name right (he writes “Jenny where were you?” and signs his name) and then he wants to know all about me! I’ve got nothing to say; I’ve done nothing! Come on, am I supposed to tell him about Newsweek from ten years before? Instead I tell him I saw him last night on the season finale of SNL, how did he get here so fast? He says the MTV Movie Awards flew him out, tomorrow he has to begin rehearsal for hosting the show in a week or so. I’m like, that must be amazing. He talks about it, but only for a moment, then he’s right back to asking me what I did that week. I’m like, uh, I loved what you did during the cold open with Christopher Walken last night. He’s like, Oh thanks a lot, when we get guests like him, he makes it so easy, he’ll do it all or you can just riff and he’s right there with you.
This goes on for several more minutes. Elza approaches and Jimmy Fallon is chatting with the three of us. At some point, an usher walks up and says “The theatre is ready now” and walks away, and Jimmy Fallon says to me and Elza, “So are we going into the movie or what?” Now I’m doubly flabbergasted. I say, “Uh, well, we just saw it. It’s good! You’ll really like it.” And that was that. Like Fallon, I’m not a star-fucker. On the other hand, as we said our warm goodbyes, I was like, damn. What was I thinking?
Sure, this story isn’t much. But it told me that Fallon was exactly the person that my then-girlfriend loved on SNL: amiable, jolly, friendlier than a puppy, and always “breaking” (cracking up laughing). And so, yeah, okay, Kimmel has more rapier wit, and Colbert is wrapping up the greatest nine-year performance piece since Yul Brynner played the King of Siam in 4,625 separate performances. (4,625 separate performances?) But I can’t help but root just a little bit for Fallon. He invited me to a movie in 2001. He’s always inviting us all to the movie of his life. And in that, he anticipated everything happening in media after 2001.