I remember it like it was yesterday. The year was 1993. I was 12 years old and staying up late to watch The Tonight Show.
It was Jay Leno’s first night as new host. He was taking over for legendary Johnny Carson who had been the shows longest running host, sitting behind The Tonight Show desk for 30 years. This might seem like an odd thing for a preteen boy to concern himself with, but I was born a pop culture junkie. As a kid I would get my hands on any periodical or book that dealt with any aspect of pop culture. Music, movies, TV – I was a kid obsessed. In the era before US Weekly magazine and E! Entertainment television, keeping up with Hollywood while growing up on a dairy farm in the Midwest was often easier said than done. But no matter where you lived in the country, you knew that Johnny Carson’s retirement from late night television was a big deal.
You might be wondering what all this has to do with the topic of generations. Hear me out. For 20 years now, Baby Boomers like Jay Leno and David Letterman have dominated the ratings for late night talk shows. Next month, however, Generation Xer Jimmy Fallon will move from his post as host of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to take over for Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show. When I first heard this news I was pleasantly surprised. As a Gen Xer myself, I love Fallon’s brand of wacky, nostalgic humor. But I also felt a sense apprehension for Fallon. Conan O’Brien, who had a huge Gen X following as the host of Late Night with Conan O’Brien (1993-2009), took over The Tonight Show in 2009, only to see the job go back to Jay Leno less than a year later. O’Brien’s audience tailed off significantly compared to Leno once he took over as The Tonight Show host, and at one point he attracted two million fewer viewers than rival David Letterman (Leno’s Tonight Show always trumped Letterman in the ratings). It was clear that O’Brien’s strong Gen X fan base wasn’t following him to his earlier time slot. Moreover, it seemed that Jay Leno fans weren’t tuning in to watch either.
Now it’s 2014, and Leno is leaving The Tonight Show next month (again) to be replaced by Gen Xer Jimmy Fallon. I can’t help but wonder if history might repeat itself. Will audiences tune in to watch a young host (Jimmy Fallon is 39) take over such a prestigious comedy institution? Can a Gen Xer win over an audience that has spent the last two decades getting their jokes and headlines from a Baby Boomer? Will NBC have to get Jay Leno out of retirement again in a year? Then again, think about the landscape of late night talk shows today and how different things are now from even just a few years ago. Gen X hosts are everywhere – Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Chelsea Handler, Seth Myers – are we seeing a turning point in late night TV?
Today we have a whole new set of hosts bringing their unique blend of comedy, music and viral videos to late night talk shows, and it’s being met with much fanfare and maybe that’s because of how we consume television today versus just 5 years ago. Monologues, musical performances, and sketches can now be viewed online – Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Hulu are just a few of the places people are now consuming late night talk shows. In today’s marketplace, the number of YouTube hits and re-tweets a show gets can play a big of part in their relevance and success.
Moreover, DVR allows us to watch what we want to watch when we want to watch it. Which means staying up until 11:30pm to watch these talk shows is becoming a thing of the past. Today, you can simply visit the shows homepage the next day to watch the segments you missed the night before. If comedy monologues aren’t your thing, simply pull up an interview with your favorite celebrity.
In his 5 years on the air, Jimmy Fallon has perfected the art of getting his show to the masses through these new mediums. Jimmy Fallon’s sketches are often geared toward Gen Xers and Millennials. For example, he started a campaign to reunite the cast of Saved by the Bell, had John Stamos on to perform a medley of songs as his Full House character, Jesse Katsopolis, and performed “The History of Rap” with his good friend Justin Timberlake. Not exactly the kind of stuff one thinks about when they think of traditional “Baby Boomer humor.” Gen Xers, after all, are known for their consumption of media. It is estimated that during our formative years, the average Gen Xer (1965-1979) consumed 23,000 hours of television by the age of 20. Many Xers, myself included, viewed the console TV in the living room as part of the family. And today, networks’ number one most coveted demographic is the 18-49 crowd. That is all comprised of Millennials and Gen X, so maybe a young host like Fallon is the obvious choice this time around.
So the question remains: how will Jimmy Fallon do in his new role as The Tonight Show host? Will Leno fans tune in to Letterman instead for some Baby Boomer comfort? Will Millennials and Xers watch Fallon live, or continue to consume his show in segments online? Time will tell. But as a Gen Xer, I’m waiting for the day when someone reunites the cast of The Goonies. And something tells me Fallon is just the man for the job.