“I don’t know if we’ll ever have an audience again,” Jimmy Fallon says. He’s not happy about this, but he’s trying to be realistic now that he’s about three weeks into quarantining with his family at their house in Sagaponack. “How long has it been?” he yells to his wife, Nancy Juvonen, who’s in the kitchen with their two daughters. “Twenty-one … Actually, it’s Friday, so 22 days!” she yells back. I’m in my house in New Jersey; Fallon and his family are in New York. Over the now–ubiquitous Zoom app, Fallon recounts what it’s been like to turn The Tonight Show, a storied 66-year-old studio talk show, into a casual small-scale production from his home. “I miss it,” he says. “I miss the audience already.” But the alternative, which he cannot stand, is doing no show at all.
Over the past three weeks, Fallon’s Tonight Show has become a go-to source of coronavirus comfort content, hitting a well-calibrated sweet spot between the late-night program’s typical formatting and an improvisational, show-born-of-necessity approach. Some of his familiar bits are still there. There’s a monologue, interviews, and musical appearances along with returning franchises like “Thank-You Notes” and “Tonight Show Hashtags.” But instead of the fancy studio, episodes are filmed inside Fallon’s house. As he performs the monologue, his younger daughter, Franny, 5, climbs up his shoulders to ask for gummy worms. In another episode, the camera jerks violently to one side as its operator, Fallon’s wife, goes to comfort her elder daughter, Winnie, 6, after she falls off a piece of furniture. When Fallon finishes a joke, he turns to his audience — his wife and kids — waiting briefly for a response. Instead, he ends up laughing at Franny, who’s messing up the music cues she’s supposed to be playing on an iPad.
While The Tonight Show has long been a place for extreme silliness, especially under Fallon’s tenure, it’s always been presented inside a framework of formality and professionalism. Hosts wear suits and stand in front of velvet curtains. Over many decades, each person in the role has primarily been a steward of the institution. But this shift into The Tonight Show: At Home Edition feels like something new. Fallon’s on-the-fly version has pivoted sharply to the aesthetics of quarantine, which are defined by constraints. It’s lo-res, intimate, immediate, and messy. It’s less Tonight, more At Home With Jimmy Fallon.
It’s also been a boon for his brand. In the past several years, late night has become a high-profile space for political commentary, which has never been Fallon’s strong suit. As hosts like Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers rose, the headlines about Fallon wondered how NBC could possibly reverse his steady plummet in the ratings. He never quite found his footing again after ruffling Donald Trump’s hair during the 2016 campaign. But the past few weeks have suggested a sea change in what audiences want from late-night hosts, and no one else has fulfilled it more quickly or effectively than Fallon. His role as the fun-loving nice guy of late night, determined to look for good things in the world, is now a balm. For the first time in Fallon’s run, it feels like the show has a mission, guided by his palpable desire to be of service to people, which, for him, means foregrounding as many charitable organizations as he can. And, of course, continuing to make the show itself. “People need some type of distraction or any sign of normalcy,” he tells me.
“The closest feeling I’ve had to something like this was 9/11,” he continues. “I was on Saturday Night Live at the time, and everyone was scared and freaking out in New York City. I didn’t know who to really turn to.” He watched the late-night hosts, especially David Letterman, who told his audience that it was a time to be courageous. As the coronavirus pandemic hit New York, Juvonen reminded Fallon of the Letterman shows and particularly the second part of his quote: “I believe, because I’ve done a little of this myself, pretending to be courageous is just as good as the real thing.” “I love that,” Fallon says. “And I thought, I’ve got to do something. So I got in my car and I went out to PC Richards and I bought a bunch of tripods and a printer.”
The show had wrapped in Manhattan one day earlier, on March 12, with a surreal episode performed to no audience. Fallon then went out to join his family at their house on Long Island. There was no plan for what would come next and whether there’d be a show at all. Fallon, newly armed with a selfie stick, had a meeting with his producers on Monday morning to create a game plan. By Tuesday, March 17, he was in his house doing the first edition of a new version of The Tonight Show — filmed entirely on an iPhone (operated by Juvonen) and the front-facing camera of Fallon’s MacBook Pro. In that first episode, he looks uncertain and a little harried. His daughters pop into frame, occasionally making enough noise that Fallon has to stop and wait. He holds up a piece of paper with THE TONIGHT SHOW STARING [sic] JIMMY FALLON on it, hand-printed by Winnie. (They eventually corrected the spelling of “starring.”) “I really don’t know what this is,” he says in the intro, “but I wanted to put something out there so we could have some levity in these bizarre times.” As the shows grew smoother over the next several episodes, Fallon’s sense of openness became its own appeal. A segment where he interviews his wife about their early romance resulted in the Vulture headline “Please Give Jimmy Fallon and His Wife’s Love Story a Rom-Com Adaptation.” When Winnie lost a tooth during a segment, it was featured on The Today Show.
It is strange to find himself having the same responsibility Letterman held after 9/11. “But that’s what you get,” he says. “You’re in this business, and you just kind of—okay, cowboy up. Buck up, and go, Yeah, this is the time when people need you to be funny.” Fallon’s thoughts bounce in different directions when he talks, a tendency that would be immediately recognizable to most parents in quarantine. As he walks loops around his house, his chronology of the past two weeks is interrupted by bursts of conversation with his family, interrupted attempts at introspection, and expressions of half-resigned resolve. The house itself feels like a familiar space after three weeks of At Home episodes. Juvonen recounts its history. A collapsing barn owned by friends of her family, she and Fallon bought it seven years ago. It’s full of colorful nooks and crannies and features a now-famous slide that shows up regularly on the show. While the adults talk, their daughters have been drawing on a color-by-numbers iPad app, which Fallon quickly swivels to so I can see (Franny’s dog is really very good). He also displays the whiteboard Juvonen recently got to help the girls with homeschool and pauses to show off how well Winnie’s learned her sight words of the day. (“Spell which!” he asks her, which she does with ease, apparently unfazed by being quizzed in front of a journalist on a video call.)
The presence of his daughters is one of the biggest surprises of The Tonight Show’s pandemic retooling, especially because Fallon and Juvonen are typically careful about keeping their kids out of the public eye. “I don’t do Instagram, I don’t do Facebook,” Juvonen says. “[Jimmy] begs once a year, ‘Can we just do [one photo with the girls]? One? People need to know I have a family.’ And I go, ‘[You can use] the skiing one where we’re all covered up.’ ” Juvonen laughs. But now the girls are front and center, coloring at the table next to him while Fallon does monologue jokes and frequently stepping in to run his music cues.
“Look, this is what we’ve got,” Juvonen continues. “The only thing we kept thinking was, if we’re not ourselves and authentic and in our sweatshirts and taking walks and being messy and doing life, then [the audience is] going to feel it, and we can’t sustain it.” Besides, the decision to make the show this way was so rushed there has been no time for second–guessing or reshoots, especially with two small children. Nearly every segment is filmed in one take. “I’ll say to Jimmy sometimes, ‘Is it okay, or did people get mad at us yet? Is it too cutesy?’ ” says Juvonen, who, in addition to operating the camera, also directs and produces. “He’s like, ‘Nope, it’s great.’ I go, ‘Okay, that’s all I need to know. Let’s just elevate a little bit if we can but stick with what we’re doing.’”
In a moment, Fallon will start pre-taping his interviews with Rachel Brosnahan and Miley Cyrus, which will air tonight along with a musical-guest segment with Lewis Capaldi. He and Juvonen also have to film the monologue and finish the rest of Winnie and Franny’s homeschooling for the day. It would be easier if they could tape episodes days in advance, but Fallon doesn’t think it would work for this moment. “The news is changing so fast,” he says. “You think you might have taped a funny joke on Monday, but you can’t air that on Thursday because the rules have changed.” At one point, they considered a joke about masks, for instance, that they nixed even at that time and would never do now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has changed its guidelines. Fallon credits his writers and producers for how well they’ve walked the tightrope of topicality and how fast they are to raise their hands (“on Zoom or whatever”) when they think something won’t work.
Fallon’s interviewing style is the element that’s stayed closest to his original format. In recent weeks, Joe Biden, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Demi Lovato, and Jonathan Van Ness have come on to promote coronavirus–relief organizations and talk about the challenges of this moment. Fallon still treats his show as a fun, entertaining place for his guests to hang out, rather than an opportunity to ask tough questions. He didn’t see politics as his area before the pandemic, and his view has not changed at a time when it feels all the more important to hold political figures to account. Whether “it’s me or if it’s, you know, Joe Biden, I look at it as, Anyone that can give us some type of reassurance or make us feel good,” he says, struggling to explain how he sees his role. Later, his publicist sends me a statement from Fallon clarifying his stance: “We need solid direction and reassurance from leaders, especially at this moment. Whether it’s Joe Biden or Lady Gaga or Andrew Cuomo, this is an opportunity to give them a platform.” In other words, the approach that was until recently Fallon’s greatest limitation is right now key to his success. He doesn’t want The Tonight Show to be stressful. He doesn’t want to wallop the members of his audience with more of the realities they’re confronting all day. He’s still Jimmy Fallon, a guy who’s trying to find the positives in a horrible situation, confident that people want reassurance more than revolution.
But in other ways, “my brain has changed,” Fallon says of the last few weeks. “I’ve been promoted to a YouTube star,” he adds, laughing. Perhaps, he says, The Tonight Show will look like something closer to its current incarnation when this is all over. “Maybe that’s the format that works for us. Maybe it’s the more intimate type of late-night show, more of a hangout.” He hasn’t stopped missing the audience. “The crowd changes your rhythm,” Fallon says. “Just hearing people laugh makes you laugh, so when you hear silence, it makes you second-guess yourself.” But it’s pushed him to understand himself better, to follow his instincts. “It’s almost like you have to force yourself into being confident. I’ve just gotta go by my gut. I’m learning,” he says, “how to find myself again.”
*A version of this article appears in the April 13, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!