Jimmy Fallon knew he was going to make it as a late night talk show host when he got a visit from the man who created Late Night — David Letterman.
It happened quietly, off camera, way back in October.
Letterman’s bandleader, Paul Shaffer, was booked on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to promote his memoir, We’ll Be Here For The Rest of Our Lives: A Swingin’ Showbiz Saga.
Before the show, which airs in Canada on A channel weeknights at 12:37 a.m. ET), Fallon went to pay a call on Shaffer backstage in the guest dressing room. The Canadian-born bandleader introduced a friend he’d brought along for support: Dave.
“I’ll never forget that for as long as I live,” says Fallon, who will host Sunday’s 62nd Primetime Emmy Awards (CTV/NBC).
Letterman told Fallon he was impressed with his new set.
“This is my favourite line,” says Fallon. “(He said) ’I’m jealous of your linoleum.”’
Letterman did not appear on the show but stood in the wings with Fallon’s executive producer Lorne Michaels and watched the opening monologue.
“He was pointing out different things,” Fallon remembers, like, “He’s doing Carson there.”
Letterman, who recently celebrated 30 years as a talk show host, had not been in NBC’s storied Rockefeller Center studios in many years, probably not since he paid a similar visit to his immediate successor, Conan O’Brien.
That was 16 years earlier at the shaky start of O’Brien’s long run at Late Night.
The late night loop comes full circle Sunday night with O’Brien — who had The Tonight Show yanked away from him after seven months — up for the Emmy for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series. Not even nominated in the category is the man who both preceded and succeeded him at NBC’s “Tonight” — Jay Leno.
The Colbert Report, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Real Time with Bill Maher and Saturday Night Live round out the category.
The highlight of the night could be O’Brien returning in triumph to make an acceptance speech — a few months before his new late night series launches on TBS.
Fallon knows it, and will have a bit ready for a follow up.
“I want to see if he’s going to have a beard,” Fallon told TV critics at the summer press tour, referring to the playoff beard O’Brien grew on his Contractually Obligated Not to be Funny on Television live comedy tour.
Fallon has nothing but respect for O’Brien, saying the main thing he learned from him was perseverance.
“He stayed in the ring when people were trying to knock him down. He got back up and proved that he was funny and awesome and someone to look up to.”
He saluted the red-haired comedian after his last Tonight Show, pouring brandy on O’Brien’s old studio floor while Fallon’s band The Roots played Voice to the Man.
The 35-year-old former Saturday Night Live player managed to stay out of the fray during the heat of the so-called late night wars.
He has a very friendly relationship with his CBS time slot rival, Craig Ferguson, with the two offering on air shout outs to each other as well as messages of support on Twitter.
Before his Late Night TV debut in March of 2009, Fallon got up to speed with four of five minute webisodes, an idea he credits to Michaels and one that allowed him to “open out of town.”
He says his first guest, notoriously non-verbal Robert De Niro, was a baptism BY fire, but credits the Oscar-winner with bringing other A-list guests to the new late night venture.
Those names have included some of Fallon’s heroes, including a memorable week with the Rolling Stones and getting to sing duets with Ringo Star and someone he’s often imitated, Barry Gibb.
“I have the greatest job, it’s insane,” says Fallon.
Another time, Hank Williams Jr. took his hat off and put it on Fallon after a song. “Dude never takes his hat off,” says Fallon. “Country music blogs freaked out about that.”
Not everything Fallon has tried in late night has worked. He says a rambunctious, physical skit known as Ultimate Moustache Fighter tested lower than anything else on the show so far.
“We’re getting Larry Bird’s moustache from the ‘80s coming down and fighting (former ”20/20“ host) John Stossel’s moustache. And people don’t like it,” he says.
There’ll be none of that hairy stuff during Sunday’s Emmys. Fallon was grateful the Academy let him bring six writers over from his own show but his game plan is to keep things fun and focused.
“I’m not really a roasting type of person, I want this to be a fun party,” he says. “The truth is, an hour and a half into it, 80 per cent of the room are losers and they’re not happy.”
Fallon’s wife Nancy Juvonen, a film producer he met on the set of the 2005 film Fever Pitch, will be with him for support. “She’s the coolest girl on Earth,” says Fallon.
If he’s learned one thing after a season-and-a-half in late night it is this piece of advice he’ll take with him to the Emmy stage: “I think Johnny Carson told Conan, Conan told Colbert, and Colbert told me that the show is never as good as you think it is and never as bad as you think it is.”