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Newsmaker: Jimmy Fallon

What with the Golden Globes, the Oscars, the Baftas and the host of other award ceremonies jamming up their calendars, it’s a wonder that the stars of stage, screen and television ever have time to act.

Plus, as British comedian Ricky Gervais liked to point out on each of the four occasions he presented the annual Golden Globes ceremony in Los Angeles, watching the impossibly wealthy and glamorous patting each other on the back year after year can be a little sick-making.

That was why in 2010, after 66 years of handing out its Golden Globes with little more than a deferential bow, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association appointed the controversial Gervais as its first host, hoping to dilute the mutual appreciation and make the awards more palatable in the era of post-modern irony.

But with a host of stars offended since 2010 by the hilariously disrespectful Gervais – particularly and repeatedly merciless towards Mel Gibson – and double-act Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, the news that “nice guy” Jimmy Fallon, host of The Tonight Show, would be fronting the Globes this Sunday appeared to signal that enough was enough.

Yes, NBC Entertainment chair Robert Greenblatt acknowledged when he announced 42-year-old Fallon’s appointment over the summer, the Golden Globes were “the most spontaneous and uninhibited award show on television” (or, as Gervais put it in 2012, “just like the Oscars, but without all that esteem”). But the claim that Fallon’s “playful, disarming comedic brilliance makes him the ideal host to … elevate the sense of fun and irreverence” rang a little hollow.

If even higher levels of irreverence was really what the producers were seeking, they should have stuck with Gervais. By his own admission, Fallon is a fan, rather than a tormentor, of the famous. As New York magazine has observed, his is “the comedy of unabashed celebration”, rather than withering disdain.

Born James Thomas Fallon in Brooklyn in 1974, to working-class parents of mixed Irish, German and Norwegian ancestry, the Fallon family moved 160 kilometres north to the town of Saugerties when he was just 1.

Raised a Catholic, for a while he considered becoming a priest. By his teens, however, he had become “obsessed” with Saturday Night Live, the long-running NBC current-affairs comedy show that has given countless big-name comedians and actors their break. He would always watch SNL alone, he once recalled: “I just didn’t want anyone ruining my experience.”

By the time he went to a Catholic college in upstate New York, study was a formality, and Fallon’s energies were going into his weekend stand-up comedy gigs, which he saw as training for SNL. Eventually, he dropped out and moved to Los Angeles.

“If I saw a shooting star, I would wish to be on Saturday Night Live,” Fallon told The New York Times in 2013. “I had no other plan,” he previously told Rolling Stone. When he did find himself actually on the show at the age of 23, “I thought: ‘Wow. I should be a motivational speaker. It really can happen.’”

It happened in 1998, after he auditioned for the show for the second time, with a series of impressions of actors and musicians. He stayed for six seasons, building a reputation as SNL’s “cleverest and cutest cast member”, before moving on in 2004.

Next stop, following in the footsteps of other SNL alumni, such as Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell and Eddie Murphy, was Hollywood, but it was a step too far for Fallon. He starred in two films, Taxi (2004) and Fever Pitch (2005), but both bombed, leaving him aimless for a few years.

In 2009, Lorne Michaels, the creator of SNL, threw him a lifeline – the high-profile job as host of Late Night as successor to Conan O’Brien, who in turn was taking over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno. Michaels said he was drawn to Fallon’s “generosity”. As the anchor of SNL’s regular Weekend Update segment, Fallon had “never felt diminished by other people being funny. The opposite.”

As a dab hand with a guitar and also capable of holding a tune, Fallon’s routine has always included affectionate impressions and even duets with rock stars – when he hosted the 62nd Primetime Emmy Awards in 2010 he opened with a Bruce Springsteen-meets-Glee-inspired musical number.

Fallon was “a classic”, Neil Young wrote in his 2012 autobiography. “He does me so well, I don’t have to bother anymore.” That year, Fallon’s musical-comedy collaborations with the likes of Paul McCartney, Springsteen and others were released as Blow Your Pants Off, which won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album.

The secret of Fallon’s popularity is what one critic described as his “unguarded ebullience, his very inability to affect [Tonight Show legend Johnny] Carson cool”. This was never more apparent than when he concluded an interview with Paul McCartney in 2013 with the words “You’re one of my idols – I love you so much”.

From anyone else, it would have been obsequious. From “Mr Sunshine” Fallon, commented Vanity Fair, “it was adorable”. When Fallon took over from Jay Leno as the sixth host of NBC’s flagship The Tonight Show in February 2014, the magazine described him as a “sweet, childlike … seemingly guileless man”.

Which, it seems, is what audiences want – especially the all-important younger viewers drawn to Fallon, as reflected in his 44 million Twitter following. So far under his stewardship, The Tonight Show has gone from strength to strength as the champion of late-night US network television – it’s something of a packed field, with more than 20 contenders.

Such has been Fallon’s success, last year NBC announced the seat was his until at least 2021. Small wonder that occasional carping at Fallon’s nice-guy routine is water off a duck’s back.

Many observers criticised Fallon’s kid-gloves interview with Donald Trump in September during the American presidential race – it was “an embarrassment”, said Atlantic magazine. Unabashed, Fallon responded: “Have you seen my show? I’m never too hard on anyone.”

No one expects Fallon to channel Gervais, who famously began his farewell Golden Globes opening speech last year with the words: “I’m going to do this monologue and then go into hiding.” But with the pressure on to “elevate the sense of fun and irreverence”, stepping into Gervais’s shoes might well demand a change of pace from Mr Nice Guy. Will it prove to be too soon for Mel Gibson to show his face again at the Los Angeles Beverly Hilton?

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