It’s hard to imagine a more potentially awkward moment during TV’s annual self-congratulatory, feel-good event: First-time Emmy host Jimmy Fallon almost immediately addressed his late-night predecessor Conan O’Brien’s short-lived, controversy-steeped stint on “The Tonight Show.”
“NBC asking the host of ‘Late Night’ to come to Los Angeles to host a different show – what could possibly go wrong?” Fallon quipped.
The camera showed O’Brien, who, for an instant, looked none too pleased. Then he laughed. After all, it’s difficult to stay angry when Jimmy Fallon is the one making the joke.
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“Too soon?” Fallon asked, without a hint of guile.
The moment was among many Sunday night where the likable Fallon used his upbeat, goofy charm to help keep what could have been a ponderous three-hour show bouncing along at a relatively rapid clip – and may have gone a long way toward establishing himself as a performer with mass appeal potential.
He got the program off to a strong start by bringing together the cast of “Glee,” Tina Fey, Jon Hamm, Randy Jackson and the ubiquitous Betty White, among others, for a full-blown, campy, choreographed treatment of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.”
The elaborate bit, partially taped beforehand, proved a great tone setter: he merged the young stars of one of last season’s hottest new shows with some old (one very old) favorites for a rollicking "Glee"-style version of a classic 35-year-old song. If Fallon’s goal was to bridge TV generations, he succeeded from the get-go.
It helped that Fallon began preparing long before taking the stage of Los Angeles’ Nokia Theatre – and not just by practicing dance moves for the high-energy opening number. The host asked the public recently to tweet him jokes he could use to introduce some of the presenters – an apparent bid to draw young, tech-savvy, but not necessarily TV-tied viewers to the broadcast.
Some of the audience tweets worked better (one wit opined that “Glee” star Matthew Morrison’s head “looks like a brown little poodle”) than others – (“She is beautiful, she is beautiful and also she is beautiful” one tweeter noted of “Modern Family” star Sofia Vergara, in an accurate, if not particularly funny assessment). There were far more misses than hits, but give Fallon credit for trying to make the show more interactive, particularly when the larger purpose of the gimmick was to expand the Emmy tent this year and beyond.
Fallon’s other major device – recruiting his former “Saturday Night Live” cast mate Amy Poehler, “Good Wife” star Julianna Margulies, Stephen Colbert and curvy reality show star Kim Kardashian for musical-duet introductions to category genres – was a cute idea aided by its brevity in execution.
Much more successful was Fallon's musical tribute to the ends of “24,” “Law & Order” and “Lost,” in which he imitated the likes of Elton John and Billie Joe Armstrong (“I didn’t understand it, but I tried,” he sung of “Lost” to the tune of Green Day’s “Time of Your Life”).
While Fallon spent a surprising amount to time singing, dancing and strumming his guitar, it couldn't have been easy following in the tap shoes of 2009 host Neil Patrick Harris, who turned in one of the more memorable Emmy hosting jobs in recent years. Harris, a song and dance man with great comic timing, is a versatile performer – his Emmys stint last year convinced us he would make a great Academy Awards host.
Fallon, though, managed to make his own mark Sunday night – even as he playfully bantered with Harris, who quipped, “I’d like to thank the Academy for allowing a gay man to host the Emmys two years in a row.”
Fallon displayed his self-assuredness by giving Harris and others laugh lines (A filmed bit about suggested plotlines for “Modern Family” – involving, variously, George Clooney and Stewie from “Family Guy” – was a highlight).
But it was very much Fallon’s show.
The former Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Player, who celebrates 18 months as a late-night host this week, may never make it to the gig that O’Brien got and was left to joke about losing. O'Brien, in a disappointment to many fans, didn't win the Emmy for his version of "The Tonight Show" – "The Daily Show" took home the award.
But Fallon notched his own Emmy victory of sorts Sunday, showing that for at least one night, he was born to run TV’s marquee celebration of itself.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.