Flashback: “It’s a marathon, not a race.”

SOURCE: usatoday.com

By Donna Freydkin, USA TODAY
NEW YORK — Jimmy Fallon couldn’t be prouder of his new sixth-floor digs.

NBC’s newest late-night gabber is almost bouncing in place, so eager is he to show off his brand-new set. Fallon greets a producer: “Hey, brother, it’s looking so good. Everything’s so amazing.” He points to a platform near where house band The Roots would be jamming. “It pulls out so they can play to the audience when they warm up,” he says.

The studio rug is made of plastic bottles, the floors of bamboo. The audience will perch in red velvet seats that once graced Radio City Music Hall. “We’re going green, as much as we can,” he says.

And like most gaming and gadget-loving males, Fallon stops and gazes reverently at his point of pride, perched near his desk. “It’s a 108-inch flat-screen. It’s a huge get. We made it all work. It’s all cool stuff.”

For someone quickly approaching his ballyhooed debut as a late-night talk-show host — he takes over Conan O’Brien’s 12:30 a.m. ET/PT time slot starting Monday — Fallon is a mixture of tightly wound nervousness and giddy exuberance.

“I’m having a hard time sleeping, but it’s all right. I have to figure it out. I’m thinking of a lot of stuff. The idea is to have fun, or there’s no sense in doing it.

“I’m ready to go tonight. I’ve grown up since Saturday Night Live, but I like talking to people.”

At the same time, his attitude seems somewhat Zen. Eight months ago, he was announced as the replacement for O’Brien, who is moving west to replace Jay Leno as the host of The Tonight Show. “It felt like a long time,” Fallon says in an interview last week on his set at NBC’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza studios. “I was nervous and excited and anxious. Now, I’m just excited.

“You can’t freak out or stress. I don’t have a dressing room. Who cares? One day I’ll have a dressing room. You just have to know it will happen and trust the people you’re working with.”

Some stiff competition

The late-night field now is unquestionably more crowded than a Prada sample sale. There’s middlebrow Leno at 10, a surprise prime-time entry on NBC starting this fall, followed by O’Brien and Fallon. ABC has Jimmy Kimmel, a genial guy best known for his Ben Affleck video lovefest, at midnight. And CBS has the formidable, sardonic David Letterman, followed by cheeky Scottish import Craig Ferguson.

Though O’Brien’s farewell last Friday hit a two-year high in the ratings, Ferguson has been closing the gap overall with Late Night. In total viewers, O’Brien has averaged 1.98 million this season, Ferguson 1.92 million. And CBS will heavily promote Ferguson in prime-time on Fallon’s first day, airing spots with guest Paris Hilton during breaks in their top-rated lineup.

Fallon says he’s not dwelling on the competition. “They’re all good shows. I did not see (the Leno announcement) coming. That was shocking. But I think that at 12:30, either you’re awake or you’re not. I don’t think the 10 p.m. will affect me at all. If we can do decent ratings, hold on to Conan’s numbers, I’ll be happy. It’s a marathon, not a race. It’s a long, long thing if it’s going to work.”

What makes Fallon stand out, says producer Mike Shoemaker, is Fallon. “He’s actually interested. He has a funny point of view. He’s just a comfortable person to talk to,” says Shoemaker, who worked with him on Saturday Night Live. So far, in test-show tapings, “the guests seem at ease with him. It feels real.”

The vibe of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon seems more audience-friendly and laid-back than that of his peers. It’s “younger,” Fallon says. “We’re going to be more interactive than shows have been in the past. Our show won’t hide the fact that we know people are on the Internet all day. We’ve hired three full-time bloggers. We’ll have short films and videos. I’ll be showing up.”

During his six years on SNL, Fallon co-anchored Weekend Update with Tina Fey as well as appearing as Wade, one of the members of the boy band 7 Degrees Celsius; guitar player Señor Guadalupe Ramirez; and Barry Gibb. It was also during his Weekend Update stint that Fallon learned something that would come in handy for his new talk-show career: “I didn’t know how to tie a tie. I was 25 years old or something. It was ridiculous. So (a dresser) taught me.”

Plus, it helped build his comfort level in front of the camera on live TV. “Weekend Update was always scripted,” Shoemaker says, “but those skills serve him well as far as learning to introduce things and formally telling jokes. His monologue skills were helped by Update.”

Like most SNL cast members, Fallon left the show for a would-be film career. But when he departed, SNL producer Lorne Michaels told Fallon to keep his mind open about a possible late-night role later on.

“I was leaving SNL in 2004, and Lorne said to me to keep in mind we’d be looking for a replacement for Conan in 2009. It sounded interesting,” Fallon says. “Tina was there and said it could be good. I decided to try movies and see that would work.”

As for movies, things didn’t exactly go the Will Ferrell route for Fallon, who starred in such clunkers as 2004’s Taxi and 2005’s Fever Pitch. Fallon is matter-of-fact about his lack of luck. “I tried movies. I did two movies. They didn’t do that well. That stopped after Fever Pitch. I didn’t get asked to do more movies.”

Then, everything changed

But it was while shooting Pitch, a romantic comedy co-starring Drew Barrymore and produced by her Flower Films, that Fallon began dating Barrymore’s producing partner, Nancy Juvonen. “It was awesome,” he says. They were married in 2007; photos of his tanned, blond bride cover the walls of Fallon’s corner office.

As O’Brien was packing up to move west, Michaels was back on the phone. ” ‘They’re looking for a replacement. What do you think?’ ” Fallon says, recalling their conversation. “I asked Nancy, and she said, ‘Of course you should do this.’ NBC had other people in mind. Lorne’s like, Jimmy’s my only choice. And that’s it. I began asking Lorne what to do, who we hire.”

To make sure he also had the funny in hand, Fallon returned to doing stand-up. “Every weekend I was out there, working on a new act. Now I’m up to 55 minutes. It’s pretty good,” he says. “I wish I hadn’t stopped it. I’d just gotten tired of my act that I wrote in my bedroom when I was in high school. It’s a different crowd every night. I missed being in front of an audience. You get an immediate response. It’s kind of great.”

Spiral staircase? Check

From the start, Fallon says, he had a clear vision for his show, down to what his desk should look like. “I gave the set guy a three-page Word document. I got everything. I wanted the Radio City seats. I wanted rafters in the back that the kids can dance on. I wanted a spiral staircase because I love spiral staircases, so I got one of those.”

Shoemaker says next week’s show will be “(everything) we had in mind. I can’t think of anything we wanted that we didn’t get. It’s up to us to make those things work together.”

Now, Fallon is all staffed up. He has done a few test shows, and to get his staff pumped, he took them to Atlantic City for a night on his own dime. He’s visibly anxious, but he’s also affable and clearly excited.

“The only pressure is on me. Can we do a good show? The set is amazing. The band is amazing. If it works, it goes for years. People make a big deal about the first show, but I’m barely concerned about that. They should talk about it a year from now.”

Fallon also will be competing with the other shows to book A-list celebrities and the perennial favorites of the talk-show circuit. Fallon says that a year from now, people won’t remember who his first guest was, yet he easily recalls Letterman’s first guests: Tom Brokaw and Bill Murray.

Calling in a few favors

Still, he’s starting things off with a bang: Fallon’s first guests are Robert De Niro and Justin Timberlake. Later on, he’ll have Fey, Cameron Diaz and Billy Crudup. “The first week is all favors. You call in your friends,” he says. “I purposely did not want to book my friends that much. I want to learn how to interview people. I’d rather know about someone I don’t know about.”

Still, his SNL people “are going to help me out,” Fallon says.

But actors aside, Fallon promises that many of his guests will be out of the mainstream. He says he’ll feature gadgets on the show and plans to treat the creator of a video game the same way another show would welcome a J.J. Abrams or Judd Apatow. “It’s a big audience out there. We’re not excluding people either. I really like music, so we can get everyone from Green Day to Trace Adkins.”

Though he’s all business discussing his show, there’s something inherently boyish and cheerful about Fallon. He jokes that in what is obviously his wedding photo, he’s kissing “my sister.” On another wall hangs a picture of Fallon’s parents after they tied the knot, with his father holding a cigarette. And nearby is a photo of Fallon teeing off. “Guess where we were playing golf? I’ll give you two guesses,” he says. “New Jersey. Bayonne, New Jersey. Isn’t that awesome?”

His office overlooks Radio City Music Hall. “I’ve got the best office in the world. You can see people. It’s actually fun seeing humans and what they’re doing.”

Let’s hope they return the favor when he’s on air.

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