The Best Of Fresh Air 2011
10:15 am
Mon December 26, 2011

Jimmy Fallon's 'Thank You Notes' For Everything

Originally published on Mon December 26, 2011 10:18 am

This week on Fresh Air, we're marking the year's end by revisiting some of the most memorable conversations we've had in 2011. This interview was originally broadcast on May 23, 2011.

Every single day of Jimmy Fallon's life is like Thanksgiving. The comedian and host of Late Night tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he is appreciative of the word moist — for being the "worst word ever." He's thankful, too, for taco shells that have survived their long journey from factory to supermarket to his plate — and then break the moment he fills them. And he's grateful that the name Lloyd starts with two L's. Otherwise, he says, it would just sound like "Loyd."

Fallon collects more than 100 nuggets of gratitude in his book, Thank You Notes. The book is based on a recurring segment on Late Night, when Fallon and his staff round up mundane things that don't get enough attention and give them each the praise they deserve.

"Like do you ever go down the hallway at work and there's someone walking at the same speed as you and right next to you so you're almost like walking together?" Fallon asks. "And you don't know who they are so you're like, 'Should we hold hands? Are you going to slow down? Do I speed up? One of us has to make a decision here.' So those types of things, they're just random but you go, 'Oh, yeah, there should be a joke somewhere about this.'"

Fallon has spent most of his career coming up with jokes and doing impressions. His early impersonations of Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby, Pee-Wee Herman, Adam Sandler and Eddie Murphy helped get him an audition in front of Lorne Michaels and then a job on Saturday Night Live, where he stayed for six years. After leaving the show to appear in several films, he was tapped by NBC to become the host of Late Night, after Conan O'Brien left in 2009 to prepare to take over Jay Leno's slot on The Tonight Show.

When he's not interviewing guests, Fallon spends a lot of time on Late Night impersonating musicians. He does spot-on versions of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, John Mayer and Neil Young. Last November, his Neil Young even famously dueted with the real Bruce Springsteen on a cover of Willow Smith's "Whip My Hair." The resulting duet became one of the most popular segments in Late Night history.

Fallon says that he's had always had a good ear for imitating others. At two, he perfected a James Cagney routine. By high school, he had Jerry Seinfeld down pat.

"I just had that thing, when I was growing up, where I'd just start talking like people," he says. "I would go visit a friend of mine's house and my mom would say 'You sound like Joey Gonzalez' because I would sound like my best friend."

Occasionally, he even runs into a celebrity right after he does his impersonation on Late Night. A recent segment parodied Donald Trump, whose show Celebrity Apprentice was interrupted by the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed.

Just after the taping, Fallon ran into Trump himself. "And I said, 'Hey Mr. Trump, I did an impression of you on the show that's airing tonight.'"

"You do great impressions," Trump replied.

"I don't want you to be upset," said Fallon.

Trump turned to the rest of the people seated at his table and announced, "Jimmy Fallon's doing an impression of me tonight!"

"He knows I never kick anyone when they're down," Fallon says. "I kick them when they're up and they don't mind."


Interview Highlights

On his 'Whip My Hair' performance

"I think every impressionist has a Neil Young but you don't know what to do with it. It's like having a Jack Nicholson. Everyone has one. What do you do with it? So one of my writers said, 'Why don't you do a Neil Young doing a nice version of Willow Smith's 'Whip My Hair?' ... So we have a guitar and we're sitting in my office, trying to think of how Neil would do it."

On how he practiced for his gig at Late Night

"I would sit to the left of my wife every night at dinner and look at her and try to ask her about her food and stuff but you don't know what it's like until you're in the situation and talking to people. I interviewed strangers. I interviewed my mom. ... She was an awful guest. She kept wanting to cut to a clip. And we have no clip. She's not in a movie. She's my mother."

On reenacting Saturday Night Live as a child

"I was obsessed with the show and this is back when VCRs had just started to come out. ... I remember being obsessed with [the show]. My parents would tape it and they would watch it and cut out any sketches that were risque or dirty or things that we couldn't see. And the ones that were clean, we would be able to watch, me and my sister Gloria."

On Weekend Update

"Colin Quinn was leaving Weekend Update and Lorne Michaels said, 'Jimmy, I think you'd be great at doing Weekend Update.' And I said, 'I don't think so. I don't really read the newspaper all that much. I don't know much about the news. I'm the worst person for Weekend Update. Thank you so much. But no thank you. I'd rather not do it.' He said, 'I think it should be someone from the cast.' So they had auditions. A couple writers were auditioning. One of the writers auditioning was Tina Fey. She was just a writer at the time who wrote a lot of stuff for me and she was super fun and super funny and super hard-working. And sharp — almost too sharp just to be by herself at the time.

"So I saw her audition, and I said, 'Tina's audition was amazing. It was hilarious.' And I talked to Lorne and he said 'I really think you should still do it. Tina's the head writer. No one knows who she is.' And I go, 'What about me and Tina?' And he goes, 'Yeah. I like that. I would see what that's like.' So he set up a test screening of Tina Fey and I in Conan O'Brien's studio over a weekend and we did a test run of what our Weekend Update would be like. And Lorne said, 'I think it would be great because she's the smart one and you're the guy who forgot to do his homework and you need to cheat off her. That's the dynamic.' And we got together and man, it just clicked."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

If you watch "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," you know what an uncanny ability he has to do other people's voices, like Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Lots of people who can't stay up late enough to watch the show see his impressions because they go viral on the Internet.

Jimmy Fallon became known for his impressions when he was a cast member on "Saturday Night Live," but he became even better-known on SNL for co-anchoring "Weekend Update" with Tina Fey.

Fallon took over "Late Night" from Conan O'Brien when O'Brien left to prepare to host "The Tonight Show" in 2009.

Every Friday on "Late Night," Fallon does a feature called "Thank You Notes," in which he writes and reads messages addressed to the things that have made him grateful during the week.

I spoke with him last May after he published his book collecting those thank you notes.

One of the things I love about your show is it gives you an opportunity to do your music impressions. You're amazing when it comes to doing music impressions of people like Neil Young and Bob Dylan. So let's just hear an example of it first. So this is you doing the Willow Smith song, "Whip My Hair."

JIMMY FALLON: Willow Smith. Yeah.

GROSS: And she's the daughter of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith.

FALLON: Yeah, it's a very good hip-hop song. It goes...

(Singing) I whip my hair back and forth. I whip my hair back - yeah. It's a big hit song. So this is me doing Neil Young, doing "Whip My Hair" with Bruce Springsteen.

GROSS: OK. So here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHIP MY HAIR")

FALLON: (Applause and cheering) (Soundbite of harmonica)

(Singing) I whip my hair back and forth. Whip my hair back and forth. Whip my hair back and forth. Whip it real good. How about that...

GROSS: So that's Jimmy Fallon doing Neil Young. We didn't have time here for the Springsteen part.

FALLON: Yeah.

GROSS: Maybe we'll get to that a little later. But, so what's so interesting about how you do this is you're not only doing Neil Young's voice, you're re-writing the song the way Neil Young would sing it, because he's such an idiosyncratic singer in terms of the way he re-melodicizes things.

So can you talk about, like, doing Neil Young?

FALLON: Yeah. I always kind of had a Neil Young impression - like, everyone does, you know. But he's a great writer.

GROSS: I don't.

FALLON: Oh, come on.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FALLON: You must have sang along with a few songs. I've heard you do "Harvest Moon."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FALLON: But, I mean, so I've always just had - as an impressionist, you kind of - I think every impressionist has a Neil Young, let's just say that.

And - but you never know what to do with it, you know, once you have it. It's like doing a - having a Jack Nicholson impression. Everyone's got one. What do you do with it?

So there's a great writer - let's just say a tip of the hat to my writing staff. A writer said: Why don't you do a version of Neil Young, we'll do a nice version of Willow Smith's "Whip My Hair"? And I go: Oh, that's funny. Let's -that'd be cool. I go: Also, Bruce Springsteen's coming on. Well, do you think he would do a duet, like, with me if we wrote a fake duet with me as fake Neil Young and him really as him? He goes let's get to it. So we sat down. We had a guitar. He had a guitar.

And we just sat around my office and I'm trying to think of, like, how Neil would do it and it's a lot of G chord into D chords and maybe throw in like an A minor in there. And it's like (singing) whip my hair back and forth. Just whip it. (Speaking) You know, and they get the harmonica going, the harmonica thing around the neck.

And then I go – and Bruce is going to come in. He's going to be like, you got to whip your hair. Whip my hair back and forth. You got to whip your hair. You know, he's got to jump in with the energy.

And I go – and so we recorded it on our phone, you know, with just a scratch recording of me and him, and we were laughing, and we recorded the thing, and we send it over to Bruce Springsteen's manager.

And Bruce Springsteen, his manager gets it, and he goes: Bruce loves it. He thinks it's hilarious. His kids know "Whip My Hair," and so - and he's seen you do Neil Young on the show, and he's game. He goes: Here's our idea. Do you want Bruce to dress like young Bruce from the '70s?

So I - right out - my mouth is - my jaw's - I'm, like, of course. Yeah. I didn't even think that he would even put on a - I mean, when are you going to get Bruce Springsteen in a wig? I'm telling you right now...

GROSS: And a fake moustache and beard.

FALLON: Yeah, and a fake beard. And, I mean, this is from the "Born to Run" era, you know, floppy hat. This is cover of Newsweek and Time magazine Bruce Springsteen, where you go: Whoa. This is the future of rock and roll Bruce Springsteen.

So the fact that he's game for this, I go: Okay, we'll get a beard, and we'll get - he goes: And we'll get a floppy hat. I go, no problem. He goes: And Bruce said he's going to bring his sunglasses from the "Born to Run" tour.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's so great.

FALLON: His actual, mirrored sunglasses. I go: Okay. He's game. So he comes over. They put the - he brings his sunglasses out. They tape a beard on him, because he didn't want to put glue on his face. So he has a beard taped to him. And he goes: You got the floppy hat?

And we put the floppy hat on him. He goes: Whoa, this looks exactly like it. This is great. This is great. I go: Also, we have a wig. Do you want to try the wig on? He goes: No, no, no. What are you trying to do to me? No, I don't want to wear a wig. I don't want to wear it.

I go: Okay, no problem, no big deal. So everyone leaves the room. It's just me and Bruce. We're kind of laughing. And the doors close, and I go: Hey, it's just us. You want to just try the wig on?

He goes, what? I go: Just try the wig. I mean, it's got curls on it. It'll be -I think it'll look - it'll be the final touch. He goes: All right, hurry up. Put the wig on.

So I put a wig on Bruce Springsteen, and I'm putting this wig on him, and he's laughing. And then we put the floppy hat and the beard and the glasses, and he looks in the mirror, and he goes: Whoa. And that was it.

GROSS: And then to top it all off, Springsteen throws in a little "Thunder Road" thing toward the end.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FALLON: Yeah.

GROSS: So why don't we hear the part where Bruce Springsteen comes in and joins you as Neil Young?

FALLON: (Singing) Whip it real good. All my ladies, can you feel me?

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Whip your hair.

FALLON: (Singing) Doing it, doing it, whip your hair.

SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Whip your hair.

FALLON: (Singing) Don't matter if it's long or short.

SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Whip your hair.

FALLON: (Singing) Doing it, doing it with your hair.

SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Whip your hair. Whip my hair.

GROSS: So that's such a great moment. Were there Neil Young records you just steeped yourself in before doing that? Do you listen to a lot of the performer you're going to do before you do them?

FALLON: Yeah. I think I have one of those things - when I grew up - you know, I've always done impressions. So I think if I listen to a record long enough - so I go - I'll listen to "Harvest," and I'll listen to the whole album, and then I could do Neil Young. You know, I can listen to, you know, "Blonde on Blonde," you know, and I'll do Bob Dylan.

You know, I can watch an episode of Jerry Seinfeld, and by the end, I'm just walking around my house, you know, talking like Jerry Seinfeld. What is that? What are you doing? Who is it? What's going - you know, I just have that thing, when I grew up, I'd just start talking like people. You know, I always had that.

I would go visit a friend of mine's house, and I'd come back, and my mom would like: You're talking like Joey Gonzalez, because I would sound like my best friend. I would just imitate him, you know.

GROSS: Now, I read that the first imitation you did was James Cagney, and I thought that's crazy, because when I was growing up - and I'm older than you are - all the impressionists did Cagney, you dirty rat. And that was, like, during the Ed Sullivan-era. You didn't grow up during the...

FALLON: Frank Gorshin, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, you didn't grow up during that era. You grew up during the "Saturday Night Live" era, when people were no longer doing James Cagney. So how did you end up doing Cagney impressions?

FALLON: It's more of a - it's a technicality. I did it - I was two years old when I did that impression. So I was a baby. And my mom would say: Jimmy, do James Cagney. And I would go: You dirty rat.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FALLON: So I already had an act. I already had an act, at two years old. And then I did...

GROSS: How did you know about Jimmy Cagney then?

FALLON: I grew up in an Irish-Catholic family, and I think they force you to watch every James Cagney movie. I mean: Come on, kids. Come on in.

GROSS: "Yankee Doodle Dandy," too?

FALLON: Oh, of course. Song and dance. That's the advanced years of Cagney. Yeah. But you start off with the gangster movies. I mean, every kid loves a good gangster movie.

GROSS: Who doesn't?

FALLON: But I mean, I watched, yeah, "Angels with Dirty Faces," "White Heat."

GROSS: Do you ever get into trouble with celebrities who you're imitating? Do they ever, like, not like it and not take it as a compliment?

FALLON: You'd think they would. I just saw - recently, I did a Donald Trump impression. And I saw Donald Trump. And it was - my impression was basically -because I was thinking, as the president got on and announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed, he announced it right in - he interrupted the last 15 minutes of "The Celebrity Apprentice."

And I go: Man, this is perfect, right? I mean, that's a double-win for Obama. So I said: We've got to do Trump. I've got to do some press conference where he's like this is amazing, a beautiful, beautiful evening. The president - you know, it's like, did you really have to interrupt the last 15 minutes of one of the greatest boardrooms in the history of "Celebrity Apprentice"? Beautiful people there, fantastic job.

And then he'll say, like: I mean, why couldn't you have waited until the show that's on after me, which is - let's see what it is. Let's see what's on after me. Oh yeah, the news. Why couldn't you have interrupted the news with the news?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FALLON: So I did that. So I saw Donald Trump at some event. And I go: Hey, Mr. Trump. I do an impression of you tonight on the show. And he goes: Oh, you do great impressions. I go: Yeah, but I'm doing you tonight on the show. I just want to let you know.

And he turns around to his whole table, he goes: Jimmy Fallon's doing an impression of me tonight on his - I go: Will you stop it? I'm trying to tell you something man-to-man, so that you don't get caught off-guard. I don't want you to be upset. I don't want you to announce it to everybody.

But I think he knows that, like, when I do an impression of people, I - number one, I never kick anyone when they're down. I either kick them when they're up and they don't mind, or I don't hit them that hard. My jokes aren't that mean-spirited.

GROSS: My guest is Jimmy Fallon. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Jimmy Fallon, the host of NBC's "Late Night." He got his start on "Saturday Night Live" where he eventually anchored "Weekend Update" with Tina Fey. You were described in an article in Rolling Stone as the least tortured comedian imaginable. Would you agree with that description of yourself?

FALLON: I think if I ever went to therapy you'd find something. But yeah, I've had a pretty, you know, I love my parents, I love my childhood, I love my sister. You know, I mean I got picked on like any kid would get picked on in school but not that much. I mean I got in some fights but not that many fights. I think I had a pretty normal childhood. I mean I have no, it's not, my life isn't "Angela's Ashes."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FALLON: You know, that guy. I mean come on, they're eating a hard-boiled egg, you know, I had it easier than that. I didn't have it that bad.

GROSS: So you went to Catholic school when you were young.

FALLON: Oh yeah.

GROSS: Did you have...

FALLON: I wanted to be a priest.

GROSS: Did you really?

FALLON: Yeah. I loved it.

GROSS: Why?

FALLON: I just, I loved the church. I loved the idea of it. I loved the smell of the incense. I loved the feeling you get when you left church. I loved like how this priest can make people feel this good. I just thought it was – I loved the whole idea of it.

My grandfather was very religious, so I used to go to mass with him at like 6:45 in the morning serve mass and then you made money too if you did weddings and funerals. They'd give you – you'd get like five bucks. And so I go okay, I can make money too. I go this could be a good deal for me. I thought I had the calling.

GROSS: Do you think part of that calling was really show business? Because like the priest is the performer at church.

FALLON: Yeah. You know what - I really Terry, I recently thought about this. Again, I've never been to therapy but I guess that would be, it's being on stage. It's my first experience on stage is as an altar boy. You're on stage next to the priest, I'm a co-star.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Also starring Jimmy Fallon.

FALLON: Yeah, I have no lines but I ring bells. I ring bells and I swing the incense around. But it was my - and you know, you are performing. You enter through a curtain, you exit through the – I mean you're backstage. I mean have you ever seen backstage behind an alter? It's kind of fascinating.

GROSS: Right.

FALLON: So I think it was, I think it was my first taste of show business and I think - or acting or something.

GROSS: And there are comparisons, I think, between a theater and a church. There are just kind of places that are separated from outside reality.

FALLON: Yeah. And I remember I had a hard time keeping a straight face at church as well.

GROSS: Did you?

FALLON: Which - yeah...

GROSS: Did you do imitations of the priest?

FALLON: Oh, of course. Yeah. I used to do Father McFadden all the time. He's the fastest talking priest ever. He's be like...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUMBLING)

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FALLON: And then you leave and you go, that - what was that? That guy's the best. I mean that was church? Sign me up. I'll do church I'll do it 10 times a day if that's church. He was great.

GROSS: Do you still go to church?

FALLON: I don't go to - I tried to go back. When I was out in L.A. and I was like kind of struggling for a bit I went to church for a while, but it's kind of, it's gotten gigantic now for me. It's like too – there's a band.

There's a band there now and you got to, you have to hold hands with people through the whole mass now, and I don't like doing that. You know, I mean it used to be the shaking hands peace was the only time you touched each other.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

FALLON: Now I'm holding – now I'm lifting people. Like Simba.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FALLON: I'm holding them (singing) ha nah hey nah ho. (Speaking) I'm doing too much. I don't want - there's Frisbees being thrown, there's beach balls going around, people waving lighters, and I go this is too much for me. I want the old way. I want to hang out with the, you know, with the nuns, you know, that was my favorite type of mass, and the Grotto and just like straight up, just mass-mass.

GROSS: Well, Jimmy Fallon, I think you're really incredible. Thank you so much for talking with us.

FALLON: Oh, you're the best. This was so much fun. I feel like I actually have inhaled fresh air.

GROSS: Great. Jimmy Fallon recorded last May after the publication of his book collecting the thank you notes he reads Friday nights on NBC's "Late Night." Our series featuring some of our most entertaining interviews of the year continues tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.