How the internet fell in love with Jimmy Fallon

Jimmy Fallon on <i>The Tonight Show</i>.

Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show.

It’s the kind of supercharged crush that puts lovesick teens to shame. The kind of thing that makes you slip a person’s name into every conversation, gush over their photos and tell complete strangers about every single funny thing they’ve ever said or done.

In fact, that’s exactly how the internet has been carrying on with Jimmy Fallon. If the infatuation had been politely contained before, it has definitely bubbled over since February – after the 39-year-old officially replaced Jay Leno as the newest host of The Tonight Show.

But who can really blame the internet for obsessing over him?  Nowadays, the funny, self-assured Fallon is the best friend we all want to have”, while the 90s ‘Saturday Night Live’ Fallon continues to be every thinking girl’s dreamboat. His awkward charm and spot-on impersonations have earned him not only a spot in running the Late Show in 2007, but also a famously inappropriate crush from pop culture icon Lena Dunham.

Jimmy Fallon performing  'Let it go' using toy instruments  with Idina Menzel.

Jimmy Fallon performing 'Let it go' using toy instruments with Idina Menzel.

 “I have a great boyfriend, but my mum said recently, ‘I always thought you would marry Jimmy Fallon,’” said the Girls creator on Wednesday night’s show. “She said it like we had a previous relationship, like you were my first boyfriend but things didn't work out and she thought we would get back together...Not like I have 50 magazine covers of you in my bathroom.”


Despite the fact that Tonight has barely reached its one-month mark, critics are already claiming that Fallon is re-writing late-night history. So far, the numbers say as much: in its first week, the show attracted an average audience of 8.5 million viewers – the highest since 1993. (And, to put it into perspective, almost the same number of people who tuned in to watch Friends’ finale week in 2004)   

As writer Rachel Grate points out at PolicyMic, “In its first few nights, [Fallon] has already shown competitors what the future of late night TV looks like. Turns out that, like most every industry out there, the future of late night is the Internet.”

Jimmy Fallon and Michelle Obama presenting the 'The Evolution of Mum Dancing'.

Jimmy Fallon and Michelle Obama presenting the 'The Evolution of Mum Dancing'.

Think about the last few viral videos you watched, and chances are Fallon is responsible for them.  Have you seen Michelle Obama’s ‘evolution of mum dance’? Do the words ‘lip sync battle’ mean anything to you? Have you watched a politician slow-jam the news? Or heard Idina Menzel perform ‘Let It Go’ with toy instruments? If the answer of any of these questions is yes, then it’s likely that you’ve been bitten by Jimmy Fallon’s viral video bug, too.  

There is a reason the SNL star alumni’s videos always manage to go viral, and it comes down to one thing: he understands why people share.

In all of Fallon’s ‘classically popular’ skits, there is an element of social currency. That is, something that makes the audience feel like they are not only smart for liking and sharing a sketch, but also “in the know”.

Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake doing 'The History of Rap'.

Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake doing 'The History of Rap'.

In a recent New Yorker piece, Jonah Berger, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School explains it thusly, “Your ability to pass [something] on and riff on it shows that you understand. It’s the ultimate, subtle insider signal.” Fallon’s animal parody of the ‘First Kiss’ viral video is a good example – where liking the clip signals that you’ve moved on to laugh at the concept while others might still be watching the original, not yet realising it was a spoof.  

Another key to Fallon’s viral success is that he makes the viewers feel like they are in on the joke. He doesn’t mind looking silly in front of a live audience or breaking character during a sketch ("Definitely a comedy foul....But the sketches I laughed in became popular.”). “Fallon's brand of comedy included the audience in the experience, and that, it would turn out, was prescient,” says GQ writer Jeanne Marie Laskas. This accounts for the popularity of segments like ‘Tonight Show Hashtags’ where he starts a hashtag that most people can relate to – like #awkwardbreakups – and reads out his favourite tweets on the show.  

The fact that he uses positive, rather than snarky humour is also key to winning over the online audience. Fallon is notorious for being a huge fan boy. In a recent interview with one of his long-time idol Paul McCartney, the latter told New York Magazine, “He’s a major fan of people, and that’s very endearing when you’re working with him... It comes across to the audience too—here’s this guy who has the same enthusiasms as you, but he happens to have his own talk show.”   

As a result, celebrities – even press weary ones – tend to relax around Fallon, and are happy to make fun of their own image, which naturally become viral-worthy entertainment. In other words, rather than sticking to the traditional talk-show format and having guests on only for interviews, “each becomes part of Fallon's sketch comedy entourage for the night,” writes Grate.

The show’s focus on 90s nostalgia (see: history of rap, evolution of hip hop) always helps.  But more than anything, Fallon’s success is proof that you don’t need to be an overbearing ‘alpha male host’ to win fans. Rather, he belongs to a new breed of well-adjusted stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Lena Dunham who are unanimously adored for being open, vulnerable and genuine.

If nothing else, the rise of The Tonight Show is a reminder that TV networks have to become more attuned to the taste of the viewing public if they want to stay competitive. We’re done with jerks. Give us more Fallon.