In theory, the best way to fill a position is by promoting someone who works directly beneath the boss that’s just been given his walking papers or decided to leave. Not only does that improve morale by making employees feel like they have a reason to work hard, it allows the transition to be more seamless since the new boss already knows the basics of how his or her new position will work. After all, who could possibly understand the rigors of being a head janitor at a company better than the assistant head janitor at the same company? Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t always work out that way. NBC learned as much the hard way when executives promoted Conan O’Brien, only to fire him eight months later, and now, they’re set to prove the Peter Principle all over again with poor Jimmy Fallon.
The Peter Principle is most often used in reference to the business world, but it actually applies to Hollywood too. It argues that people tend to rise to their level of incompetence. Meaning, actors good at playing bit parts tend to get offered supporting roles. Those good at supporting roles tend to get offered starring roles in small budget films. Those good at starring roles in small budget films tend to get starring roles in medium budget films. On and on, people move up the ladder until eventually, they reach a point in which they’ve been promoted beyond their level of competence. For example: Jennifer Aniston might seem like the most vibrant and loveable television actress in the world on Friends, but she’s a whole lot less charming frantically trying to carry shitty, recycled romantic comedies.
Which brings us to Fallon. The former Saturday Night Live star took a lot of heat when his Late Night With Jimmy Fallon took over Conan’s original timeslot on NBC a little more than three years ago, but in the time since, he’s actually improved by leaps and bounds. His interviews have progressed from terrible to a shade under mediocre, and he’s had an incredible hit rate when it comes to goofy viral videos like the history of rap and his odd covers of pop songs. There’s something about his show that’s goofy and unpredictable in all of the best ways, weird yet strangely accessible.
Unfortunately, The Tonight Show's 11:35 p.m. time slot is a completely different beast. The average age for people watching the television at said hour tends to skew a whole lot older, and these viewers tend to prefer the cooler and more even pace of interviews as they try and fall asleep. Not only is the interview the single worst weapon in Fallon’s arsenal, his high energy, quirky nature is typically one of his big selling points. At 11:35 that could well be distracting to older viewers, and it could cause him to bleed a share of his audience off to the far more professional and straight-laced options of David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel.
The goal of The Tonight Show has always been to be as broad as possible. Once upon a time, an overwhelming majority of viewers watched Johnny Carson before they went to bed, and NBC has never lost its desire to recreate something as close to that as possible. Fallon is not the guy to do that. He’s the quirky companion piece to go on after the guy who does that. He’s always been at his best when he lets down his hair a bit. That's why many of his most beloved SNL moments involve breaking character, and that's why the more relaxed formatting rules and looser, impulsive structure of 12:35 suit his game. He’s always been his best when he’s doing crazy things like remixing the news and playing beer pong with his guests. Is there a place for that on television? Ab-so-fucking-lutely. But can the viewers who want that overlap enough with The Tonight Show's natural audience to make the show profitable and competitive? Probably not, especially if NBC is unwilling to give him a few years to find his groove and endear himself to an older demographic.
Everyone gets so obsessed with rising as high as possible. Everyone always fixates on the idea of moving up and not getting stagnant, but sometimes, the most successful people are the ones who find a job they’re good at and stick with it. Fallon is great at 12:35. He’s given a ton of creative freedom, and he seems to be having a damn good time. Maybe he’ll be able to carry over that momentum to 11:35, but if I was running NBC, I would leave one of my best assets in the job I already know he’s great at and look elsewhere to plug the gaping hole.