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Op-ed: Is ‘The Tonight Show’ cool again?

  • David Caplan is an entertainment journalist
  • He says 'The Tonight Show' IS cool again!
  • What could be cooler than breaking it down with Will Smith and 'remixing' R. Kelly's 'Ignition?'
David Caplan headshot

Editor’s note: David Caplan is an entertainment journalist and the founder of Previously, he was a senior editor at People magazine and has worked at publications like TMZ, Us Weekly, Star Magazine and He is on Twitter.

Could it be? Is “The Tonight Show” actually cool again?

It sure is.

It’s only taken 22 years, but judging by Jimmy Fallon’s debut Monday night, the decades-old late-night staple has emerged from its foggy, try-hard haze.

It’s no longer the show I’d watch with my grandparents, who would nod off after the opening monologue, but before Betty White came on.

RATE THEM: Jimmy or Jay? Your favorite late-night hosts

Let’s be honest: There’s very little that’s cool about Jay Leno (sorry, his affinity for cool cars doesn’t qualify him as cool.) He just doesn’t exude coolness. His humor skewed toward an older audience, he was perceived as a bit less politically liberal than his counterparts, and when the likes of Lindsay Lohan or Kim Kardashian came on the show, Leno just seemed out of his element. Garth Brooks? Billy Crystal? Sure, Leno owned it.

SEE: Good night, Jay! 14 of his best 'Tonight Show' moments

Trotting out tabloid-prone starlets isn’t always synonymous with coolness either, and Fallon proved that Monday night with a stream of actors, athletes and politicians who jokingly handed him $100 bills in a nod to a lost bet that he wouldn’t land his new, lucrative gig.

The audience squealed and the Twittersphere lit up when Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga, Sarah Jessica Parker, Robert De Niro (this man oozes New York coolness), Kardashian and Lohan appeared on set. These bold-faced figures are relevant. They’re au courant (despite what you may think about Lohan).

HIT OR MISS? Fallon's first 'Tonight Show'

Leno lacked the physical energy and endless boyish enthusiasm that makes Fallon so endearing. I mean, Fallon rapped with Will Smith on Monday night. Would Leno ever have demonstrated the “Evolution of Hip Hop” by busting out “The Running Man,” “The Robot” and “The Pop and Lock?” No way. And in overalls? That’s pretty dang cool.

Let’s look at the ratings: According to a report in The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month, the average age of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” viewer was 57.8, with the 18-49 demographic getting a boost of 7% since 2012. But the “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” 18-49 demo jump from 2012 was more than double that, with 17%, and the average viewer’s age was 52.6, according to the same article. Only “Conan” has a younger viewership, with the average age being a wet-behind-the-ears 38.9. Although the red-haired comic isn’t keeping those viewers: The 18-49 set actually dropped 11% from 2012.

READ: She's a princess! Fallon & wife welcome baby girl

The point here is not to be ageist, but when it comes to TV, youth and the notion of coolness pretty much go hand-in-hand. It’s just the reality of it.  

And the younger viewer’s affinity for Fallon was apparent Monday night: According to Nielsen, Fallon had a 3.8 rating in the advertising-friendly 18-49 demographic, while David Letterman’s 18-49 rating was a dismal 0.5, and Jimmy Kimmel -- whose coolness is being challenged by Fallon -- had a surprising 0.4 rating in that demo.

MORE: Say what? Bieber photobombs Fallon! 

So Fallon gets it. He just does. And if you need any more convincing, has any other late-night host had U2 perform on top of 30 Rock against the Manhattan skyline at sunset? I didn’t think so.

Cool is king, and Fallon’s sitting on the throne -- for now.

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