Jimmy Fallon on fatherhood, comedy and his seriously genius inventions
June 6, 2018
Jimmy Fallon has a bone to pick with kids’ books: They make him weepy.
“There are a couple that are just so sad, I can’t have ’em in the house,” says the scrubby-haired “Tonight Show” host, kicking back in his 30 Rock office before his afternoon show taping. “I can’t do it. ‘The Giving Tree’? Devastating!”
The 43-year-old comic’s two daughters, who are 3 and 4 years old, will clamor for bedtime stories from Dad — and sometimes he can barely make it through. “I was just reading a book to one of my kids, something about how you can wish on a star. I’m like, ‘We wished for you,’ ” he says, his voice going verge-of-tears wobbly, “‘and you’re the dream that came true!’ My kid’s looking at me like, are you having a stroke?”
Behold, a squishy side to the guy long defined by his impish grin, endless goofiness and palpable joy in spoofing songs, nailing celebrity impressions and trying nearly anything to keep “Tonight Show” guests and audiences entertained.
So when he wrote his own books for children — 2015’s hit “Your Baby’s First Word Will Be DADA” and its recent successor, “Everything is MAMA” — he aimed for fewer tears and more minicomedians.
“Kids like animal sounds. You can make them laugh, and then they love reading it back to you,” he says. “Then they can make you laugh, they’re getting a reaction, their confidence is built up. So it’s this exposure to humor and it’s a step into the world of reading. That’s a way bigger deal than what the first book started out as, which was a joke.”
Its title reflects Fallon’s own quest to ensure his older daughter, Winnie, uttered his nickname first, stealthily dropping “Dada” whenever his wife, film producer Nancy Juvonen, wasn’t within earshot.
“It didn’t work,” he says with a sheepish smile. “She said ‘Mama’ first.” Still, he figured he’d pass the mission on to other new fathers. And besides, “There really aren’t enough books out there for dads.”
This is a calmer, more stately Fallon, one who’s — wait, scratch that. The comic jumps up and glances at a list on his desk. “My first guest for today is … Cate Blanchett. She wants to feed me hamburgers! And Guy Fieri, he’s super fun! I love him! And then Darius Rucker. We’re gonna do a Hootie thing!”
A doting father he may be, but Fallon has lost none of the energetic showmanship that’s defined his vaudevillian career, hosting “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” from 2009 to 2013 and then taking over “Tonight” in 2014 (with both shows accompanied by The Roots).
The Bay Ridge, NY, native — who now lives in Gramercy, an easy commute to Rockefeller Center — is a pop-culture addict and a true comedy nerd. His warm-up act, Seth Herzog, is a veteran comic Fallon knew from a Lower East Side variety show. “Some people are like, ‘Dude, the show was great, but especially the warm-up guy!’ I’m like, yeah, he’s OK. But I did a whole song and dance, I was covered in whipped cream going down a slide like a human tongue — that wasn’t entertaining?”
Mementos of Fallon’s tenure at NBC, starting with his “SNL” debut at 24 years old, are everywhere in this spacious office: the corner fish tank gifted from Lorne Michaels, who has one just like it; the “humbling” nameplate from his first real office, last name misspelled “Falon;” and, encased in a reverential glass dome, the orange ping-pong ball from a game he played with Prince. Fallon recounted the anecdote — in which the musician challenged him to an off-camera match, and trounced him while wearing a blue velvet suit and then vanished — on air shortly after the singer’s death.
Fallon still looks gleefully incredulous as he recalls the story now. It’s that “Am I really getting away with this?” wink that keeps his “Tonight Show” delivery so engaging — a natural extension of those “SNL” days when he regularly cracked up mid-sketch.
Who else would be allowed to throw a huge inflatable ball straight at Julia Roberts’ face in a game called — wait for it — Face Balls? “I felt bad about that one,” he says of the late-night bit, though he’s trying not to laugh even while he says it. “It was a really good smack!” Roberts emerged intact; others haven’t been quite so lucky. “We tackled snowmen on the rooftop once with Faith Hill, and she broke her collarbone or something.”
His social-media numbers have been ticking upward (a musical impressions sketch with Ariana Grande has hit more than 114 million views), which he attributes to viewers’ need to escape the “angry” news cycle. “I think people just go online and think, give me something funny.”
He’s been delivering exactly that for years, often with longtime collaborators like Paul Rudd, Justin Timberlake and Will Ferrell — the latter of whom showed up in a karaoke skit earlier this year called “Peter and His Heckler,” which still has Fallon giggling.
“The thing I love about that sketch is, how did that guy [Fallon] get booked on ‘The Tonight Show’? He’s not that good a singer. He saved up his money and bought a suit at — I picture him buying it at Structure, you remember that place? And he’s just going for it. And this weirdo in the audience [Ferrell] is heckling him. He’s not even mean. He just has a lot of questions.”
Sometimes the joke stays between Fallon and his guest. “Paul [Rudd] and I used to do a bit where, with every appearance, his outfits got a little smaller. By the last one it was basically shorts. No one ever picked up on it.”
But trying to keep it light hasn’t meant steering completely clear of dead-serious issues off-screen. Last weekend, Fallon gave a commencement speech at the Parkland, Fla., high school where 17 people were killed by a school shooter earlier this year, telling students: “You are not just the future — you are the present. Keep changing the world. Keep making us proud.” Fallon also took his family to the March for Our Lives this spring in Washington, DC. “I wanted my girls to be there, so they could see what a movement looks like, and be part of it,” he says.
He’s also busy turning his random ideas into new business ventures. “I think of these dumb inventions all the time, and I write them down in Evernote.” Example? “They should have emoji waffles. You don’t know which one it is until you toast it — it’s an egg wash or something. Eggo, get on that!” He also wants to develop a reality show called “Stuck.” “It’s just people stuck in an elevator. And you record what they do for like, 20 minutes.” (No bites on that one yet.)
He then became obsessed with missed opportunities in sports-fan fashion. “I had this idea I called ‘Pitz.’ What do you do when your team is winning? Your hands go up. That’s prime real estate. Why are there no logos there?”
Fallon called his agent, who set up a meeting, and voila — a line called “Hands High” (a more diplomatic take on “Pitz”) was born. “I had to go and meet with the NBA, the NHL, the NFL, do all these business meetings and pitch my idea. They all got on board!” Again, giddily incredulous.
It’s noon now, and he’s got producers across the hall waiting to meet with him. “I think they put our guests at ease and [make] people feel comfortable getting weird,” Fallon says. “Cate came up with the hamburgers thing — I didn’t ask her to do that!
“I don’t know what I’d do without funny people,” he continues, getting ready to head out. “I’d have to move someplace funnier.