It's hard to view Friday night's Late Night with Jimmy Fallon as a true farewell, since all Fallon is doing is getting the ultimate promotion to The Tonight Show. And he's taking everybody with him.
And yet it is an ending. It's an ending to a five-year tenure that started in the shadow of a lot of skeptics (I was one of them) and a lot of criticism. What I said then was that LNJF's success or failure would be determined by whether his show had "a distinct point of view."
It's funny now — those words surprised even me when I reread them, because I had forgotten over the course of five years that I didn't know in 2009 that Jimmy Fallon even had an animating principle, let alone know that it would turn out to be joy, which is the animating principle of entirely too little of popular culture. In fact, the show turned out to be, much of the time, all point of view. Less plugging, more beer pong. Less anecdote-sharing, more getting Tom Cruise to break eggs on his head. It's 12:30 in the morning, this show always seemed to be saying. You can learn stuff tomorrow. Everybody here likes each other.
So while Fallon isn't leaving, exactly, this will be a new phase, in which he will be compared to Leno, and Carson, and Jack Paar, and his ratings will be examined in a way they haven't ever been before, and Leno will probably pop up somewhere else doing somewhere else and kidding on the square about how unfair it is that he got "fired." And the show's ability to live in a bubble where all it had to be was animated by unceasing happiness will be imperiled for a while by a kind of scrutiny that the 12:30 a.m. slot just doesn't invite.
He staged his goodbye as a performance of "The Weight" with The Muppets, which continues perhaps the best LNJF tradition of all: that of making really good, really strange choices that somehow, in retrospect, are perfect. We could have sat around trading ideas, the rest of us who don't live in that bubble, for a year, and we'd never have come up with "he should sing 'The Weight' with The Muppets." But now that I've seen it, I can't possibly imagine it being anything else.
Because Jimmy Fallon lives on joy, and joy is not solitary. It's why he's not at his strongest in plain monologue delivery, and it's why every single good bit he has is fundamentally a collaboration. Even something like "Thank You Notes," which seems to be just him reading cards, has morphed into a silly little dance he does with the keyboard player. [Ed. Note: After getting schooled in the comments by one Ahmir Thompson, who is right, I note that the keyboard player in question is James Poyser, who has won a bunch of Grammys and who I should've named.]
Fallon needs other people — that's why it makes all the sense in the world that he closed this chapter in a sea of Muppets, sitting at a drum set in the back. And the balance between sincerity and goofery, which is the balance that his show has mastered almost from day one, is perfectly encapsulated in the fact that on the one hand, this is sort of warm and sweet, and on the other hand, Animal keeps popping out yelling "AAAAAND!" and Beaker sings harmony.
As I've said a bunch of times, the precise quality that could make Fallon irritating on Saturday Night Live — the inability not to laugh during sketches — was a glimpse at why his late-night show has been so utterly delightful. He gets so jazzed about things, and he's so energized by the presence of other humans, that he has the poker face of a 5-year-old. He laughs, and somebody else laughs, and then everybody laughs more. It's not everybody's thing, but boy, it's been mine.