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. 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. One 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."
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."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's late-night week on FRESH AIR. Today we're going to hear from Jimmy Fallon, who will become the new host of "The Tonight Show" after Jay Leno steps down next February. Fallon has been hosting "Late Night" on NBC since taking over from Conan O'Brien in 2009.
Fallon has a great band on "Late Night," The Roots, and they're moving with him to "The Tonight Show." Tomorrow we'll hear from the leader of The Roots, Questlove.
Before getting his own show, Jimmy Fallon was a cast member of "Saturday Night Live," where he became famous for his uncanny impressions and for co-hosting "Weekend Update" with Tina Fey. I spoke with Fallon in May of 2011 after the publication of his book "Thank You Notes," which collected some of the notes he wrote on his regular "Late Night" feature of the same name, in which he writes and reads messages addressed to the things that have made him grateful during the week. Jimmy Fallon, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's great to have you on the show.
JIMMY FALLON: I'm a big fan. Thank you so much for having me on.
GROSS: Oh, God, thank you so much. So let's start with some thank-you notes, and we have your theme music, your thank-you note theme music. So...
FALLON: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...you have some picked out. So here we go.
FALLON: Yeah, I'm getting ready. Here we go. Let's just start it off.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FALLON: Thank you, the word moist, for being the worst word ever. I think I speak for all Americans when I say we don't want you as a word anymore. God, I hate you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FALLON: Thank you, hard taco shells for surviving the long journey from factory, to supermarket, to my plate and then breaking the moment I put something inside you. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FALLON: Thank you, yard sales, for being the perfect way to say to your neighbors: We think we're important enough to charge money for our garbage.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FALLON: Thank you, the name Lloyd, for starting with two L's. I'm glad both those L's were there, because otherwise I would've just called you Loyd.
FALLON: And finally...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FALLON: Thank you, slow-walking family walking in front of me on the sidewalk. No, please, take your time, and definitely spread out, too, so you create a barricade of idiots. I'm so thankful that you forced me to walk on the street and risk getting hit by a car in order to pass you so I could resume walking at a normal, human pace. Thank you.
GROSS: I love that. That's Jimmy Fallon, from his new book "Thank You Notes." And Jimmy, you know, sometimes Friday nights, the last thing I hear before going to sleep is your thank-you notes.
FALLON: (Laughing and clapping) I love that. That's all I want.
GROSS: So do you make mental notes all week about things that bother you that you can use for the thank-you notes?
FALLON: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Like if something just happens - like the other day something happened. I bought a pack of gum, and the receipt, I'm not kidding, was over a foot long.
FALLON: It might have been two feet long of receipt paper, and I'm walking, and you could hear it. You could hear me as I'm walking around the store with this receipt. I go: I bought a pack of gum. This is insane. This is out - you're killing the rainforest for my Orbits. So those types of things, like, you know, they're just random, but you go: Oh, yeah. There should be a joke somewhere about this.
GROSS: OK. You had to learn how to do interviews from...
FALLON: I mean, help me with this Terry, because this is not an easy thing.
GROSS: Let's talk about doing interviews. What did you have to learn to do it, and how hard do you think it is?
FALLON: Holy moley. Holy moley.
GROSS: As an interviewer, I really want to hear you talk about this.
FALLON: I mean, it is - it's hard. I think probably the best advice you can give somebody who's getting into is you won't learn how to do it until you do it, because I was trying to practice.
I mean, 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, I mean, you don't really know what it's like until you're actually in the situation and talking to people and just letting the conversation...
GROSS: So you didn't do it at all until you were doing it on the air?
FALLON: Yeah, I mean, yeah. That's right. I tried. I didn't know what to do. I mean, interview strangers. I interviewed my mom. I mean, what do I do? I mean, I don't know who else to interview. I mean, you know what? The best practice I had - but it's true. I mean, I don't know how to do this...
GROSS: Was she a good guest? Would she be a good guest?
FALLON: She was an awful guest. 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.
GROSS: 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." 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: Okay. So, here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHIP MY HAIR")
FALLON: (Singing) Whip my hair back and forth, whip my hair back and forth, just whip it. Whip my hair back and forth. Whip my hair back and forth, whip it real good. Hop up on the bed...
GROSS: So that's Jimmy Fallon doing Neil Young. We didn't have time here for the Springsteen part. Maybe we'll get to that a little later. So what's so interesting about how you do this is you're not only doing Neil Young's voice, you're rewriting 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 there's a great writer.
GROSS: I don't.
FALLON: Oh, come on. You must have sang along with a few songs. I've heard you do "Harvest Moon."
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. Would - 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.
You know, and they get the harmonica going, the harmonica thing around the neck. And then I go - and Bruce has got to come in. He's got to go, like: (singing) You've got to whip your hair - whip my hair back and forth. You've got to whip your hair.
You know, he's got to jump in with that energy. 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 record 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, it'll never happen.
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.
GROSS: That's so great.
FALLON: His actual mirrored sunglasses. I go: Okay. He's game. So he comes over. We have great hair-and-makeup girls. Cindy Lou(ph) and Courtney(ph) are in there. 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: What, 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's like, 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.
GROSS: So why don't we hear the part where Bruce Springsteen comes in and joins you as Neil Young?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHIP MY HAIR")
JIMMY FALLON AND BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Whip my hair back and forth. Whip my hair back and forth. Whip it real good. All my ladies, if you feel me.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Whip your hair.
FALLON: (Singing) Do it, do 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 had 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.
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.
FALLON: 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." I've seen all of them. My favorite movie of all time, by the way, is "City for Conquest." It is such a good movie. He goes blind in the ring. His girlfriend is a dancer on Broadway. She becomes famous. He goes blind. He's a newsie. He's selling newspapers, and he smells her perfume. Oh, it's heartbreaking. It is a great movie.
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. 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?
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 and 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 anybody 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.
GROSS: It's late-night week on FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Jimmy Fallon in 2011. He's hosted NBC's "Late Night" since 2009, and now he's preparing to replace Jay Leno as the host of "The Tonight Show." Fallon first became known as a cast member of "Saturday Night Live."
At this point in our interview, Fallon had a question for me.
FALLON: Terry, did you ever have a different voice when you were starting in radio?
FALLON: What was your other voice? Was it wackier?
GROSS: It wasn't wacky. It was just kind of more like this.
GROSS: I would - when I get nervous, my voice - anyways, this used to be the case. When I'd get nervous, my voice would rise approximately an octave. And I'd speak, like, really super-fast. So - you know, and when I started hosting the show, it was - when I started to host on a college station, I was hosting, like, a feminist radio show, and I - but I was talking kind of like this. So I always thought I sounded kind of like a feminist Minnie Mouse.
FALLON: That is great, because I always loved - I'm obsessed with radio. I love radio so much. And as a comedian, I used to have to do radio, like, morning zoo crew shows at, like, seven in the morning.
GROSS: As a guest, not as a...
FALLON: As a guest, just so I can plug the tickets to - so I can sell a comedy show. You know, I was doing comedy clubs when I was, like, you know, 18 and 19. So I'd have to sell them out, and I'd have to go on radio shows. I'm like: Good morning. We're here with Jimmy Fallon on the air, and...
FALLON: And Jimmy, I mean - you know, let me tell you something. "Saturday Night Live" isn't funny anymore. Our weatherman hates your guts. He's like: Yeah, I don't like you, Jimmy Fallon. You know, and I'd have to get in fights at seven in the morning, you know.
It's like - and they'd try to be shocking. They're like: So, anyway, I was getting my prostate checked the other day. It's 7:15 in the a.m. I've got - and I go: You've got to be kidding me. Who wants to hear about this guy's - and they're the nicest people off the air. They'd be like: Hey, Jimmy, thanks for being here at the Z, Z103. You're the greatest. "Saturday Night Live" couldn't be funnier. Thank you so much. Are you ready to be on the air?
I go: I'm ready to be on the air. Okay, perfect. Here we go. We're going to be on the air in two seconds. Okay. And we're back. Jimmy Fallon here. He's on "Saturday Night Dead." That's what I call it, because it hasn't been funny in 15 years.
You know, and it's like, I go: You just told me over the commercial break that you liked it.
GROSS: Is that what you'd actually say?
FALLON: No. I would actually try to defend the show, stupidly, because I wasn't old enough to figure out that this is all a game. It's just like: OK, he's just trying to rattle me so that he can get a good quote out of me.
GROSS: So you loved "Saturday Night Live" as a kid, right, and you used to do reenactments of the sketches in your home?
FALLON: I was obsessed with the show. And this is back when VCRs just started to come out. A VCR, by the way, for anyone listening, is a videocassette recorder.
FALLON: They don't even know what a VCR is. But we used to - so we had the VCR, and you have to press play and record to record the show, and I remember just like being obsessed with "Saturday Night Live and my parents would tape it and they would watch it and just kind of cut out the - any sketches that were risque or dirty or things that we shouldn't see.
And then the ones that were clean, we would be able to watch the sketches, me and my sister Gloria, who's my only sister, just the two of us and my mom and dad. And so we just got obsessed with the, you know, the Czech Brothers.
We would say stuff that's risque that we had no idea was risque. Like we would dress up in our parents' like, '70s disco clothes and like walk around like, we are two wild and crazy guys.
FALLON: You know, and like we'd put on shows in front of our family and go like we have to go to Statue of Liberty to get birth control devices.
FALLON: And my grandmother would like almost have a heart attack. Like, what are these kids, you know, and we had no idea what that was. And, but we would just do it just to be funny and see our parents laugh.
And I remember, I was a weird kid. I used to go to garage sales all the time with my mother. We used to walk around our neighborhood in Socrates, New York, upstate, and I remember if I had any money or anything, you know - I bought a reel-to-reel recorder and I used to bring the reel-to-reel home and I would tape the monologues, like Richard Pryor and Steve Martin.
And I'd go up to my bedroom and I'd play them back and I'd lip-sync them in the mirror. You know, just do it, pretending I was on the show and I think that obsession grew as I got older.
GROSS: So how did you get to actually audition for "Saturday Night Live"?
FALLON: I moved out to Los Angeles, I dropped out of college my senior year, my friend Peter Iselin - I worked for a news weekly in Albany, New York called Metroland and I was the secretary there. I used to answer the phones and stuff like that, and so he was leaving. He was becoming a manager in L.A. and I gave him my tape and resume and my headshot, which was awful. My first headshot, it's - gosh, I'm wearing so much makeup it's insane. I look like Tammy Faye Baker.
FALLON: But it's - so I gave him all the stuff and he got up to L.A. and they called me and they said hey, we saw your tape. This girl Randy Segal, she's like we'd love you to come out to L.A. and take acting classes and stuff like that and I, you know, took classes in the Groundlings, which is like Second City but the Los Angeles version. So I said great.
She goes well, what do you want to do with your career? Do you have any goals? I'm like, I want to be on "Saturday Night Live." And she was like, right. Okay, what else do you want to do? What really do you want to do? I was like, no, that's it.
She goes like, yeah, it's just like one in a million chance you get on "Saturday Night Live" so I mean you should have another goal. And I'm like, that's all I really want to do. That's my goal. I mean that was my goal since I was probably 14 or 15. If I ever blew out candles on a cake or wished upon a falling star or threw a coin in a well, I'd say I want to be on "Saturday Night Live."
GROSS: We'll hear more of my 2011 interview with Jimmy Fallon in the second half of the show as our late-night week continues. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FALLON: Through tapes and my manager, I - they set up an audition in front of Lorne. It was at a comedy club out here in New York City called the "Comic Strip." And I went and it bombed. I had one act and I just did impressions of different people auditioning for a commercial for a troll doll. Do you remember those troll dolls with the fuzzy hair?
FALLON: So I would do different impressions. I'd do like Bill Cosby going like we know the people to take the troll. He's sitting there with (unintelligible) with hey, man.
You know, and so I'd go like, you know, next up, you know, I think at the time I was doing Pee Wee Herman. I'm like heh-heh. (Unintelligible). I like to play with myself. You know, or whatever.
FALLON: That was the ender. And so I did this bit. It didn't work. It bombed. And, but it turns out they were actually looking for a different type of cast member. That year Tracy Morgan got hired. And then I was depressed.
And I went back out to L.A. And then they called back up and they said we'd like to see Jimmy again but tell him not to do the troll bit. We've seen the troll stuff. Like, OK. So I was just so excited I got a second chance so I did a celebrity walk-a-thon. So I did different celebrities - so I got to come back to Studio 8H and audition for Lorne Michaels on the stage where I've seen Richard Pryor do the monologue, I've seen Gilda Radner be funny, I've seen Steve Martin come out with the arrow through his head. You know, this is a legendary thing. So I figured, if I don't get this job it doesn't matter. This is an experience. I'll never forget this.
So I go out and I do the celebrity impressions. I do - because that was my thing. I wanted to be like the next Dana Carvey. So I did all my impressions, and I get up to my last impression, and it's Adam Sandler. And at the time, no one did Adam Sandler. He was still on the cast. I think "Billy Madison" just came out, or was about to come out. So I go, next up, Adam Sandler. And I go: How you doing? I, you know, my mother used to take me all the time and to the walk-a-thon and she would be like hey, hoo, who the devil is you? And then I'd go shut up.
FALLON: You know, so I did this impression and Lorne Michaels starts to laugh and he puts his head in his hand and he's laughing. And I go, wow. This is cool. Like if nothing else happens, that happened. And the rest of the day was in slow motion for me. I was like walking on clouds and it was like, it was like an episode of "The Wonder Years." It was like a "Wonder Years." It was like...
(Singing) What would you do if...
It was like, you know, me and Paul never talked again.
FALLON: You know, the whole Winnie Cooper was - it was black, it was in sepia-tone. It was like so super 8. It was so great I just, and then I got a, Marcy(ph), the first girl that came and told me - she goes, that was one of the best auditions I've ever seen.
GROSS: So once you got on "Saturday Night Live" you wanted to be on it like all your life. You grew up wanting to be on it. You're finally on it. Was it hard to find a place for yourself? I've interviewed a lot of people who've been on "Saturday Night Live" and most of them complain that in the first period it was really hard to get stuff written for them. It was hard to get on air. That it was hard to...
GROSS: ...like, figure out who they were within this cast?
FALLON: Yeah. I mean I think, when I first got on, I was the impressions guy, so I would just do impressions. So if they needed an impression they would call me. So if they needed a Robin Williams, I would be like: Oh thank you. Yes, suddenly there's a guy going no, thank you. Yes, oh, Mr. Happy's going no.
FALLON: It's beautiful, yes. And so and one, two, three and bong, kick and chain. Thank you.
So, you know, I'd do that, so I would be that guy. And then second season I tried to branch out. Of course, you know, everyone just gets in the way of themselves. I said no more impressions. I want to do original characters. So I did like a guy who fixes your computer, like an IT guy at the office who's annoying. Because you know those guys always come in. They just make fun of you. And they fix your computer but they make you feel like a fool. Because like, did you press X6, escape?
FALLON: And you go. No, I have no idea. You're the computer guy. Yeah. Duh. The printer's now working. You know, you go whatever, buddy. So I did him and then, then I started...
GROSS: You majored in computer sciences for a while, right?
FALLON: Yeah, that was my major in college. I loved - I...
GROSS: So were you that guy who'd say did you press X6?
FALLON: Kind of but I was nicer to people. I was like, I could tell if people didn't understand. I'd be like, I'll fix it. But a thing that they always say, which is correct, they go, move, so that you get out of the way...
FALLON: ...and let them sit in your chair and fix it, which is kind of what I do. I'd go, well, just, can I just sit in your chair and I'll fix the whole thing. But you see those people, they're so cocky, they're so proud, they're so - big deal, you could fix my printer. I don't care. This is - don't make me feel like a jackass. So...
GROSS: So you started doing characters.
FALLON: So I started doing characters and then "Weekend Update" happened. Colin Quinn was leaving "Weekend Update" and Lorne said Jimmy, I think you'd be great at doing "Weekend Update." And I go, I don't think so. I don't really read the newspaper 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.
So they had auditions. A couple writers were auditioning. One of the writers auditioning was Tina Fey. So she was just a writer at the time who wrote a lot of stuff for me, and she was super fun and super, super, super funny and super hardworking. And she had this sharp, sharp wit. I mean almost too sharp for "Weekend Update" just to be by herself at the time. So I saw her audition and I was like man, did you see Tina's audition was amazing. It was hilarious. She did this thing about Britney Spears. She did a thing about Britney Spears about how enjoy your body while you have it because one day you're going to lose it.
FALLON: She goes one day, I mean right now look at your butt, look at your butt. She goes you want - you have to look at that thing through a hole in a paper plate, which I love that reference.
FALLON: So I said to Lorne, I go, he goes I really think you should still do it because Tina's not on the show. No one knows who she is. She's the head writer. I go, what about maybe me and Tina? And he's like yeah, I like that. I would see what that's like. I like that idea.
So he set up a test screening of me and - Tina Fey and I in Conan O'Brien's studio over a weekend and we did this like a test run of what our Weekend Update would be like. And he goes, Lorne says, 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.
FALLON: I go, great. And we got together and man, it just clicked. It just worked.
GROSS: Tina Fey recently said on our show that when she started doing "Weekend Update" it changed her life because that's the only position on "Saturday Night Live" where you look into the camera and you say your name, so everybody knows your name.
FALLON: Yeah. I mean Chevy Chase, I mean he got famous off of one season.
GROSS: Yeah. So did it change you to say, and I'm Jimmy Fallon?
FALLON: Yeah. It really is. I mean we were on a magazine cover in that year and that next year. I mean it blew up. I mean I couldn't have been more popular on the show. It was the best because then people start seeing your old stuff and they go oh, yeah, he also does Barry Gibb and he does, you know, that's the guy that did, you know, the Adam Sandler or the songs and - so they start putting two and two together in a different way.
FALLON: So and you have to be kind of more of your sense of humor, because I'm used to playing characters and other people, which is - which really helped me, I think, for this talk show. Because when you host a talk show, as you know, you can't be phony. You have to be honest and you have to be yourself. It comes through. I mean because eventually you go like, you know what? Somebody will come for a cooking segment on my show and they put mayonnaise and I go yuk, I hate mayonnaise. Just that right there is like just being honest saying like whoa, you don't like mayonnaise? Like you're not like Mr. I Like Everything. Like, I hate mayonnaise. I think it's the most disgusting condiment that exists. But I can just say that because why not? That's who I am.
GROSS: So after years and years of wanting to be on "Saturday Night Live," you're on it, you're a big success, you're hosting "Update," and you leave after about six years.
GROSS: Which is...
FALLON: Well, the contract is six years but I'm such a fan of John Belushi. I love John Belushi and he was only on for three seasons, so in my head I always said I just want to do three seasons and leave.
GROSS: Why did you want to leave? I mean you wanted this all your life and you finally got it? Why did you want to get off of it eventually?
FALLON: Because I've just heard so many horror stories about how people hate it and they hate each other and they get in fights and they get in arguments and they hate the show.
GROSS: What, do they stay too long?
FALLON: I don't know. Yeah, I guess, I don't know what's the problem, but I didn't have that problem up to that point, so I go, I just want to leave now while everything's happy. I'm friends with everybody. I mean who knows...
GROSS: Was it hard when you left to then watch the show and not be on it?
FALLON: Oh, that's where the drinking started.
FALLON: No, no, no, no, no. But that's - but that was a very - it's just depressing because yeah, you watch and you go like, I miss all those guys because gosh, you spend so much time in the office with these people and you sleep over. I mean it's like, I mean I slept in my office I don't know how many times at "Saturday Night Live." You know, me and Horatio were officemates through the whole time, I miss him. You know, and I'd see these bits and I'd go ah, I do an impression of Howard Stern or I could've done that or oh man, that was a good joke. I wish I had told it, you know. You know, you're happy for everybody but you're always, you're also jealous of everybody and you go, man. But, you know, I don't know, it's just, it's a tough thing. But I think it was the right decision because I did stay friends with everybody, with Lorne and Tina and... I remember when I was leaving Lorne said, so what are you going to do? I said well, I'll try movies or something. I don't know. And he goes would you ever think of maybe like hosting a talk show? And Tina, I remember Tina Fey was there and she goes, she goes, I think you'd be good at that because you've got that Irish charm. You're always talking to everybody. I go, oh, whatever. I'm going to try movies now and we'll see what happens. So tried movies. Had fun. I met my wife on one movie I made, "Fever Pitch." And...
GROSS: She was Drew Barrymore's producing partner.
FALLON: Yeah. Her name is Nancy Juvonen and she was just a cute girl on the set and I was like... we didn't do anything on the set. We just were very professional but then we were selling the movie in London and I saw her again and I go, oh man, I miss hanging out with you. She goes I miss hanging out with you too. I go, yeah, I like hanging out. She goes I like hanging out with you, and then we kind of fell in love from there and just like took it from there.
GROSS: So now that you have a daily show or a nightly show, what do you no longer have time for in your life?
FALLON: Yeah. Yeah.
FALLON: I have to schedule, if I want to do something I have to schedule it in my day, because it's a packed day. So if I want to play video games, I have to schedule and go, all right, I'm going to play video games from 8 o'clock to 8:30. But I can't do that because that's when I usually get to see my wife, so it's got to be after, my wife love - I get home from work usually, I get into work probably around 10 o'clock, 10:30, and I get home probably around 9 o'clock earliest. Sometimes we do pre-tapes on the show of - if we're spoofing "Jersey Shore" or we're making fun of, you know, "Lost" or, you know, we've done spoofs on all these things, so sometimes I get home like midnight. But, you know, when I get home early I like to hang out with my wife and we watch just awesome reality shows on TiVo, "Real Housewives," all that stuff, "Jersey Shore." We watch all that stuff.
GROSS: So you really watch - I was just wondering if you really watched "Jersey Shore" or if you just...
FALLON: I love "Jersey Shore."
GROSS: Right. Because you parody it on the show. Yeah.
FALLON: But the reason why I love it is because I have nothing in common with these people.
FALLON: I'm fascinated. It's like watching "National Geographic" for me.
FALLON: I go, this - I want to see how they live in the wild. This is like, because like The Situation will go by a club, he'll be like nah, I don't want to go in there. There's too - there's not enough people in there. And I'm like, I'm the opposite. I'm, like, there is too many people in that bar. I'm not going to go in that bar.
FALLON: I want to go to a place where no one is.
GROSS: 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."
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.
FALLON: 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? 'Cause like the priest is the performer at church.
FALLON: Yeah. You know what - I really Terry, I'm, 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.
FALLON: I'm, I've got...
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 altar? It's kind of fascinating.
FALLON: So I think it was, I think it was my first taste of show business 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)
FALLON: And then you leave and you go, that - what was that?
FALLON: 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. But I just...
GROSS: Do you still go to church?
FALLON: I don't go - 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 now and you got to, you have to hold hands with people through the whole Mass now, and I don't like doing that. It used to be, the shaking hands piece was the only time you touched each other.
FALLON: Now I'm holding - now I'm lifting people. Like Simba.
FALLON: I'm holding them (Singing) ha nah hey nah ho.
(Speaking) I'm, 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: I want to end with another clip of you doing an impression, and this is you doing Bob Dylan singing the theme from "Charles in Charge." Why "Charles in Charge?" Why Dylan and "Charles in Charge"?
FALLON: Well, it's almost the same thing as the Neil thing, is that I can do an impression of Bob Dylan, but we wanted to pick something that was fun and different. And we just thought that there was that one cadence of Charles in charge of our days and our nights, Charles in charge of our wrongs and our rights. Those are the words to the theme song. And we were just laughing, me and this writer, Mike DiCenzo. And he was going like, Charles in charge of our days and our nights, of our wrongs and our rights. And it's like, it kind of weirdly sounds like a Dylan thing. So we did like a Dylan-esque version of that where you had to play - the harmonica is different than Neil Young's harmonica...
GROSS: Right. Right.
FALLON: ..whereas it's higher pitched and more screechy. And then when he gets to that weird - like he stops saying words at some point 'cause he's like...
(Singing) I want Charles in charge of me.
FALLON: (Singing) I want Charles in charge of me.
(Speaking) And it's almost like a Jell-O thing or something in his throat at, just certain points of his singing. And I'm a huge fan, of course, of Bob Dylan. So the fact that we were able to pull this off, it came off pretty cool. I was happy with the end result.
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 is so much fun. I feel like I actually have inhaled fresh air.
GROSS: Jimmy Fallon, recorded two years ago. He's probably even busier now than he was then. He and his wife have a baby daughter who was born last month. And next year, Fallon takes over "The Tonight Show."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FALLON: (Singing) New boy in the neighborhood. Lives downstairs and it's understood. He's just there to take good care of me, like he's one of the family. Charles in charge of our days and our nights. Charles in charge of our wrongs and our rights.
(Singing) Charles in charge of our days and our nights, Charles in charge of our wrongs and our rights. And I want Charles in charge of me. I want Charles in charge of me.
GROSS: You'll find links to all the sketches and impressions Fallon talked about on our website, freshair.npr.org.
When Jimmy Fallon leaves NBC's "Late Night," he'll be replaced by Seth Meyers. We'll feature an excerpt of our interview with Meyers after a break. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.