Last night, on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon hugged as they concluded their interview, just as we’ve seen many times before. But this time as she did so, we heard her whisper, “Trump got elected because of you.”
That’s because Fallon’s Tonight Show celebrated its fifth anniversary by doing something a little different. Rather than air a standard episode of the show or even a celebratory bunch of clips, they broke their usual form entirely and produced a faux behind-the-scenes documentary in the style of the comedy classic The Larry Sanders Show.
If you’re unfamiliar, you’re truly missing out, but Larry Sanders was a groundbreaking HBO sitcom that ran from 1992–1998 and starred the late Garry Shandling as the titular Sanders. It took place behind the scenes of a fictional late-night talk show and followed the misadventures, mistakes, and rare triumphs of host Larry, producer Artie, and sidekick Hank along with various other showbiz staff as they tried to get each night’s show off the ground and keep everyone’s fragile egos intact. Last night’s Tonight Show was a love letter to Sanders, as elements of the show both big and small made their way into the real-life late-night show.
Jimmy always has Steve Higgins at his side, just as Larry had Hank Kingsley, the sidekick who never met a product he wouldn’t happily endorse. On last night’s Tonight we saw a much more Hank-y side of Fallon’s sidekick. When Jimmy first encounters him backstage, Higgins is picking up as many “Fallon”-branded water bottles as he can carry from the Fiji girl–inspired running joke that appeared throughout the episode. He then asks Jimmy if he can plug his barbecue cookbook during the warm-up (The Bonesucker’s Guide to a Good Ribbing). Jimmy says no, but Steve does so anyway (and again during the actual show as well).
Nearly every episode of Larry Sanders began with Hank Kingsley giving the same speech to warm up the crowd just seconds before the talk-show-within-a-show would begin. “You folks see that flashing sign up there? Now, that sign says ‘applesauce.’ No, no, I’m kidding. It says ‘applause.’” Higgins gave the exact same speech during his warm-up, with “amazeballs” instead of “applesauce,” and the aforementioned addition of a barbecue cookbook.
No episode of Larry’s talk show ever went perfectly smoothly, whether it was Larry trying to date one of his guests, residual guest bitterness from being bumped, or just an interview that bombed. Last night, the audience was shown portions of a standard Tonight Show mixed with what was happening behind the scenes. Ben Stiller planned on surprising Jimmy for his anniversary in costume as Hashtag the Panda, but when the surprise gets blown backstage, he is incredibly pissed and insults Fallon’s ability to act surprised before spending much of the episode in half a panda costume, unable to find the stairs to exit the building.
Tina Fey is livid with Jimmy and insists that he “knows what he did,” accuses him of “popping pills” constantly, and as the two chat while a clip from her upcoming movie Wine Country plays, she says she’ll finish the rest of the interview with a smile, “but she’ll be shopping her wares elsewhere.”
The Support Staff
Beyond Hank and Artie, Larry’s beleaguered assistants, writers, and talent bookers were instrumental to the show’s comedy. Many of Fallon’s behind-the-scenes staffers were showcased last night in much the same way, from makeup artists to producers to interns to writers. None of them had much of anything nice to say about working for Jimmy, whether they were criticizing his looks, forcing him to say embarrassing things in Spanish for a Telemundo promo, or complaining that Jimmy doesn’t know their names. In fact, it would seem that the only joy anyone working on this version of Fallon feels is at the host’s expense.
Just as Larry is constantly fretting about what the tabloids are saying about him, what the network is whispering about him, or (most frequently) his physical appearance, Fallon’s constant question last night was about his face. And as soon as he was out of earshot, everyone agreed that “he looks puffy,” with one producer remarking, “Let’s get all the ramen out of his office.”
The Little Touches
To really hit it home, though, a number of direct items were lifted straight from Sanders. The fake late-night show’s theme song was performed by the Roots as Jimmy made his way from his monologue to his desk. Just before that evening’s taping of The Tonight Show began, the camera lingered on a photo of Garry Shandling himself, posted on the stage wall. And throughout the evening, Fallon adopted Sanders’s catchphrase “No flipping!” (As a nice little touch, this extended into the promos for the Tonight Show that aired during the local news at 11 p.m. as well.)
But ultimately, there’s an element of Sanders that simply can’t be done by an actual person. Larry Sanders was able to look truly awful. He could be an entirely fragile, narcissistic idiot who was more concerned about whether his ass looked big than whether his assistant was feeling appreciated. This was allowed because we knew Larry Sanders was not real. This was a character who was treating his staff like garbage, so we gave ourselves permission to be entertained by his awful behavior.
Last night, Jimmy couldn’t go the “full Sanders,” and no one could blame him. He’s got to host an actual show the following night and hundreds more extending onward into infinity. He certainly was not on his best behavior last night: He was seen smoking between commercial breaks, and a live mic caught him yelling at Robert Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter’s kid, backstage. But still, we all know this isn’t the real Jimmy Fallon. This is “Jimmy Fallon,” like Curb’s “Larry David” and The Colbert Report’s “Stephen Colbert.” And just in case there was any lingering doubt, at the very end of the fifth-anniversary special, we are shown some bloopers in which Fallon, Higgins, Stiller, and Fey have a great time improvising and laughing as they made this experimental Tonight Show. Just in case anyone was tricked by this imaginary backstage Tonight Show, we are given a glimpse of the real Fallon to remind us.
Last night’s fifth-anniversary special managed to capture a lot of Larry Sanders in what was clearly a heartfelt and loving tribute. And even better, while there was a lot of anger simmering in this fictional day-in-the-life, all involved made it through without a complete, Hank Kingsley–level meltdown.