If you spent Saint Patrick’s Day at Molly’s Irish Pub in New York City, you might have noticed that the bartender looked a wee bit familiar.
For an hour, late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon poured drinks and sang along to bar standards like “Sweet Caroline” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
Maybe it has something to do with his Irish roots (he’s the descendant of immigrants from County Galway), but for Fallon, making sure everyone has a great time seems to come naturally.
It takes moxie to be a great host, and Fallon has it. Here’s how:
People with moxie go after what they want with a single-minded focus.
When Fallon grew up in Saugerties, New York, he developed an obsession with Saturday Night Live. He religiously watched the segments his parents taped for him (they were careful about letting him watch anything too risqué) and began dreaming of one day being on the show himself. He memorized and reenacted sketches, honed celebrity impersonations, and even used his blossoming musical talents in his comedy act.
He began performing stand-up while in college and dropped out a semester shy of graduation to move to Los Angeles and pursue his comedy career. He landed a spot with the Groundlings, but his heart remained set on joining the cast of SNL.
“This was my ultimate goal. If I ever cut into a birthday cake and made a wish, I would wish to be on SNL. If I threw a coin into a fountain, I would wish to be on SNL. If I saw a shooting star, I would wish to be on SNL,” he once said. “I remember saying to myself, ‘If I don’t make it on before I’m 25, I’m going to kill myself.’ It’s crazy. I had no other plan. I didn’t have friends; I didn’t have a girlfriend, and I didn’t have anything going on. I had my career; that was it.”
His dream came true in 1998 when he joined the cast as a featured player. Over the next several years, he carved out a place for himself as the go-to guy for impressions, and he eventually landed a spot anchoring Weekend Update.
Fallon didn’t have just luck in his gig at SNL. He honed his craft for years, auditioned and failed, went back and prepared some more, then auditioned again, and this time landed the spot. It takes moxie, talent, focus, and hard work to reach such an audacious goal, and Fallon has it.
People with moxie kill them with kindness.
After several years on SNL, Fallon followed in the footsteps of many alums and pursued a movie career. But as Fallon struggled to find his footing in movies, SNL producer Lorne Michaels had a different role in mind for him. With his easygoing, friendly demeanor and command of popular culture, he thought Fallon would be a natural late-night host.
When Conan O’Brien vacated the Late Night desk to take the reins of The Tonight Show, Fallon was well-prepared to take over and make the show his own. It was an awkward time to take on a late-night hosting gig; Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno were caught in a weird tug of war over The Tonight Show, and studio execs were shuffling and reshuffling to figure out how to work it all out without destroying ratings and a venerable program.
Amid the tensions, Fallon redefined Late Night and became the familiar, friendly guy audiences wanted to spend their evening with. He developed a reputation for just being nice, and it’s a reputation that followed him to the host desk at The Tonight Show, where he took over in 2014.
Fallon wants everyone to relax and have a good time, and he’s not known for overtly political humor or commentary, a significant differentiator from other talk show hosts.
His “niceness” has landed him in hot water. He invited then-candidate Donald Trump onto his show during the 2016 elections. At one point in the segment, he reached over and tousled Trump’s legendary hair. Some saw the interview as unduly “humanizing” for Trump, who had – and has – a well-earned reputation for bombastic rhetoric and offensive statements and behavior.
Backlash wounded Fallon, who hadn’t intended to wade into political controversy. He only intended to be a good host, just as he also was to other political figures, and have fun.
Fallon has remained true to his nice-guy approach to entertaining. In contrast to other late-night hosts, he’s not staked out political positions and aimed too many pointed barbs at politicians and public figures. His show continues to be a respite from the toxic political stew of our current culture.
It takes moxie to play nice, even when critics want you to throw a punch or two, and Fallon has it.
People with moxie innovate.
The late-night staples are on Fallon’s show – the interviews, skits, and jokes. But Fallon has pioneered new bits serving joy, fun, and excellent ratings.
The most interesting new twist is that Fallon entices celebrity guests to play silly games. The games are more revealing than celebs spit out often canned-seeming answers while peddling their latest project. The games are fun, and in no time, celebrity guests forget the stage, the audience, and the lights and embrace the sheer joy of play. Audiences see celebrities with their guards down and catch a glimpse of their talents, competitiveness, and playfulness. Stars reveal more about themselves while struggling to remember song lyrics while getting sprayed in the face with water or feeling mystery objects in a box or playing charades than they ever do answering questions while perched on a sofa.
Fallon was also pushed into new territory with his expanding use of social media. Fallon and crew go beyond simply reposting show content; they produce web-only content that keeps the audience engaged all day. As a result, bits trend regularly, and viral posts have become part of the cultural landscape. By recognizing the importance of social media and leveraging it well, Fallon has expanded his audience to those who will never tune in after 10 pm.
It takes moxie to try things that have never been done before or expand into new territory.
If you could plan any game with Fallon, what would you play?