Sunday, February 12, 2012

Late Night with Jimmy Fallon 1/30/12: "Glenn Close, Emmy Rossum"

Jimmy Fallon raises the interesting question of how funny a late night talk show host has to be.  The late-night format has long settled into a format of half comedy, half celebrity adulation/promotion, and Fallon is undeniably talented at the latter part.  He has a kind of energy and clueless enthusiasm that makes you think that every night is going to be a great show, and that he's genuinely excited to be doing another interview with the Shameless people or some guy from Jersey Shore.  The value of hype men to society is very questionable, but it is a kind of skill, and Fallon has it.

As for the comedy... well, it's acceptable and inoffensive, and that's kind of the problem.  The late-night joke format is as ossified as the format of the shows itself.  The host describes a current event, makes a decent but kind of obvious joke about it, sometimes the sidekick adds in a comment, and then it's onto the next topic.  (Some of Fallon's desk segments, like "Pros and Cons", follow a similar format.)  The main issue is that the set-up to joke ratio is way out of skew (at least for the level of reward the jokes give), and the kind of ADD flitting from one news topic to another without any semblance of transitions.  It's not that all of the jokes are bad, but at the same time it feels as though this part of the show only exists because a late-night show has to have it.  The set is even dressed up to have an almost archaic, Vaudevillian look.

But of course, a late night show is designed to be conventional and inoffensive, the kind of wind-down fare you can watch before bed (or possibly fall asleep to) without having to think about.  There's nothing wrong with that function, and in some ways it's comforting to think about the continuity of comedians doing essentially the same show all the way back to the 1960s.  I'm not sure how many people watch TV this way anymore, but most nights on a network are structured in a distinct arc, starting off with some easy-to-digest comedy, moving into a (theoretically) more involving drama, and finishing off with news and a late-night show to wind down.  It's a full emotional experience you can get without leaving your couch all night.  And Late Night with Jimmy Fallon perhaps deserves to be judged in this context: I've found I enjoy it a lot more the later in the day I watch it [1].  I watched this episode at 2 AM and loved it.

The second segment is probably the most "pure" comedy segment, in that it's more devoted to getting laughs than fitting into late-night conventions, and it's easily the funniest part of the show.  In what's apparently some kind of recurring segment, Fallon presents viewers with a "do not read" list, presenting the goofiest titles the writers could find on Amazon.  This segment is a great fit for Fallon because it doesn't really require him to be funny, which he has trouble doing consistently -- the books, a product of the naturally absurd world of self-publishing, do the work for him.

This is followed by another recurring segment, "Battle of the Instant Bands", in which thrown-together audience members with musical talent have to come up with a song in a short amount of time.  (Normally I would wonder about the odds of getting two bands' worth of musicians in the studio audience, but then again, this is New York.)  Of course, the actual interesting part of this process -- the chaotic attempts to come up with a song and gel as some sort of group -- is not televised.  Instead, all we get is the final, remarkably polished performance.

This probably says something about the show: any moments that aren't a pure performance are excised.  Jimmy Fallon, and the larger tradition he belongs to, exists in a world where everyone is made-up and beautiful and everything is the finished product, with no indication of process or progress.  Everything is already great.  Even the audience members seem a little larger than life, apparently being sent from Hipster Central Casting.  I would almost say that it was fixed but, again, this is New York.

Oh, and the worse band wins because they have a cute girl and pandered, based on an audience applause-o-meter.  It reminds me of the one time I went to the Apollo Theatre, and this is another moment where the vaudeville routes of the show poke through.  This isn't really a self-reflexive version of the late night show a la Ferguson or early Letterman.  Rather, it's very conscious of the tradition it belongs to, and respectfully submits itself as a follower of tradition instead of mocking or questioning it as other shows do.  In some ways this makes Jimmy Fallon frustratingly conservative, unwilling to ditch late-night staples that don't really work well here [2].  But at the very least it has a deep knowledge of its forebearers and has learned from them, which we can possibly attribute to showbiz veteran and producer Lorne Michaels.

After this we get into the interview segments. The interview is in many ways the main draw of the show: it's what they announce at the top of the hour, and what usually takes up the most airtime (although this episode is more heavily waited towards host segments). It's worth noting, however, that this is a distinctly neutered version the interview as a form. It's more of a friendly chat with a minor celebrity, which segues into an advertisement for whatever the celebrity is currently involved in. So when Fallon sits down with Glenn Close, it's more or less a given that he's not going to ask her much about her craft as an actor, or roles she's done less recently, and that nobody will mention the rocky critical reception of her pet project Albert Nobbs. This is not so much a criticism as an observation that the performative aesthetic extends here: on late night, everyone is awesome, and no one ever makes a bad film.

These interviews are then a service mainly to the subject and not the audience. (The subjects of the interview aren't even described as such – the official terminology is “guest”.) But the audience, at least the ideal audience imagined by the genre – which is not too different from the ideal audience of the National Enquirer – does get something from this, which explains the format's enduring popularity. There's the idea that this is the celebrity in their natural form, not performing in one role or the other or having to justify themselves as they would in a harsher interview. Instead, the illusion is that the host, and by extension the audience, is just hanging out with this famous person – cracking jokes, playing games, talking about trivial things. Much like many sitcoms, it's a fantasy of friendship, although more of an impossible dream than, say, Friends.

Of course, on the talk show circuit the guests are playing a role no less than they are in their films: it's ultimately a performative space. But Glenn Close is playing the character Glenn Close[3], as opposed to the character of Albert Nobbs or Monica Rawlings or whatever, and that character is designed to be fun to (virtually) hang out with. So there's a pleasure for the audience even if they're aware that the interview is a disguised advertisement.

For the night's biggest guest Fallon usually takes a second segment to play a game with them, which usually seems to be some variant of charades. This is usually more entertaining than another five minutes of interview would be, and it furthers the goal of putting these celebrities in a seemingly casual hang-out setting. In this episode's variant, Glenn Close and her makeup-artist husband work magic on Jimmy's face. This is actually quite a well set-up gag: we're lead to expect an Albert Nobbs-level transformation, and then the chair turns around to reveal... Jimmy Fallon with a bunch of pieces of tape stuck to his face. It's a good joke, riffing off the silliness of the transformation trope, so good that they do it again with Glenn Close to diminishing returns (although it's technically better executed the second time around.)

After this there's an interview with Emmy Rossum, which sort of shows the pitfalls of this kind of interview.  Once again, we have the compulsive friendliness, which turns the short interview into mostly Rossum talking about her flight.  You could overhear the exact same conversation on the bus, and with lesser celebrities the hanging-out factor is a lot less appealing.  No one is going to say "Holy shit, it's like I'm actually chilling out with Emmy freaking Rossum."  This segment is over with in a blink, and other than Rossum's beauty there's not much to interest one in her or in the show she's there to promote, Shameless.  It's inoffensive, but on the other hand the segment is a waste of five minutes or however long it lasts.

The show closes out with a musical performance from Nada Surf.  If there's one thing that could be said to distinguish Fallon from his late-night competitors, it's the emphasis on music, which can be seen in both the house band (The Roots!) and his frequent musical guests who are actually the kind of hip up-and-coming artists that both (a)could genuinely use the exposure and (b)help give some cred to the show, which in most other ways is rather square and credulous.  Musical performance is always a little visually uninteresting, but not more so than an interview.  I do have to wonder, though, what's up with the guys in the crowd behind the band.  Did they watch the whole show from there?  Did they get special stare-at-our-musical-guests'-backs tickets?

(Unfortunately I couldn't find a good screencap of these strange individuals.)

All in all a perfectly harmless and mostly entertaining hour of television.  Nothing overstays its welcome, and one is never bored or forced to think.  But is it okay for art -- and we have to consider television to be art -- to be harmless?

That's a loaded question, of course -- Late Night with Jimmy Fallon shares little more than a medium with something like Breaking Bad, and asking it to be revelatory is like holding your morning newspaper to the standards of a literary novel.  The function these shows exist to serve -- a kind of mental cleansing before bed -- is perhaps an important one, even if it's the opposite of intellectual stimulation.  Of course, a lot of stuff can get slipped by you when you're not thinking, so it's important to consider the content of these shows even when they present themselves as trivial.  A critic has to walk a fine line between taking a show on its own terms and dragging it out of the way it wants to be defined.  So I think it's possible to define Fallon as both a fun hang-out show and a vapid cog in the great machine celebrity industry -- and it would be possible to excise either without destroying the show, and the genre it belongs to, completely.

Next week: "Live, from New York... it's Saturday Night!"

[1]Of course, this might be what makes late night shows such an effective advertisement for movies, TV, and other media properties -- they get you when your critical faculties are shutting off.

[2]The show would be much better, for instance, if they ditched the opening monologue and replaced it with perhaps another musical performance.  Hey, maybe The Roots could play a full song once.  That would be cool.

[3]In other words, the interview is about as real as those interviews you see at the start of porn films where the girl talks about how excited she is to do double anal. Er, or so I've heard.

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