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How the ‘Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon’ pivoted during quarantine and reinvented itself

‘Tonight Show’ showrunner Gavin Purcell explains how Jimmy Fallon and the rest of the team are evolving while adapting to this strange moment.

How the ‘Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon’ pivoted during quarantine and reinvented itself
[Photo: courtesy of NBC]

The show must go on.

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Everybody knows that.

But what about during a global pandemic?

Over the last few weeks, as the spread of coronavirus in the U.S. has intensified drastically, all inessential workplaces began shutting their doors. It’s a code-red catastrophe that’s made folks across all industries reexamine what “essential” even means. Medicine, of course, is essential. Mail delivery is essential. Groceries are essential.

Kibitzing on TV with Miley Cyrus? Maybe not.

The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon: At Home Edition got up and running early into this mess, though, so that viewers might be comforted by seeing the inessential carry on with continuity.

“When you look at it compared to the people who are saving lives, it’s like, ‘What are we doing?'” says Gavin Purcell, who is the showrunnner at the Tonight Show. “But we just hope we can bring some entertainment and joy into people’s lives, too, and let them have a chance to take a breath. It’s kind of relentless right now and being able to enjoy something is important.”

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[Photo: courtesy of NBC]
Television is now inundated with late-night hosts literally phoning it in. (Or, more accurately, Zooming it in.) Everyone from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to Showtime’s Desus and Mero has a quarantine version of their show on the air. There was no blueprint for TV producers on how to proceed during this once-in-a-century crisis. Each of them had to figure out what to do independently.

Purcell and the rest of the Tonight Show team had been aware of the developing situation as COVID-19 first hit U.S. shores in late January. They spent a lot of time over the next five or six weeks discussing how to keep both the staff and the studio audience safe, as concerns mounted in tandem with confirmed cases—until the day they decided to do the show with no live audience.

“It was a weird day,” Purcell recalls of the episode that aired on Friday, March 13. “It was a day where everybody in the world, especially in America, was coming to grips with the intensity of what this was going to be. And then the narrative changed fast.”

As showrunner, Purcell had to assess the metastasizing fears of his staff. At one point, NBC sent in a crisis manager to assist with the logistics questions he couldn’t answer. Of course, the biggest question of all, especially after the network shut down the set the next day, was what the hell do we do now?

Purcell and the other producers started talking over the weekend about the possibility of continuing the show remotely. Fallon himself expressed interest as well, but there was no consensus yet on what continuing might look like or how to proceed.

By Monday morning, March 16, however, the host had put together a clip that ended up being the prototype of The Tonight Show: At Home Edition.

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It was a short video of Fallon singing a silly song to his young daughters, Winnie and Frances, about washing their hands. Although more of a PSA than a sketch, it expressed the kind of tender levity that might help ease people through an extraordinarily challenging time.

This video also introduced the world to the additional cast, new director, and lo-fi aesthetic they would soon be seeing in fresh Tonight Show episodes, which began airing later that week. Fallon’s wife, Nancy, a producer in her own right, stepped up to fill the role of de facto director, and the pair’s children, now stuck at home every day, became part-sidekicks, part-crew members, and part-studio audience.

“The first few things we did very much feel like YouTuber content,” Purcell says. “It kind of feels like watching a YouTuber discover how to shoot movies in real time.” [Purcell is being a bit modest: Fallon developed his late-night show online starting in 2008 before debuting on NBC in March of 2009, and Purcell helped innovate the idea of orienting late-night TV toward discrete clips that could be easily shared.]

Episode one of the charmingly ramshackle At Home Edition begins with the host unfurling a homemade title sign drawn by his kids, with the word “starring” misspelled. Fallon runs through a quick monologue—the absence of studio laughter less eerie in this setting than in the studio, but still palpable—and later debuts another silly song, this one about St. Patty’s Day. He also uses his platform to promote the charity Feeding America, a staple going forward in the show’s new, more open-hearted incarnation.

By the third day, Fallon was welcoming Jennifer Garner on the show via Zoom, and doing the monologue from his front stoop—looking both ways before leaving the front door, in the same hygienically paranoid manner we’ve all lately developed.

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It was quickly becoming a different show.

[Photo: courtesy of NBC]
“We’ve been trying to reimagine what our show is and trying out new things that are interesting and different,” Purcell says. “We’re not trying to redo our show as it was.”

The Tonight Show is now a reflection of what everybody watching at home is going through. The host is an employee adjusting to working from home, while also learning to homeschool his kids. Being a wealthy celebrity means his comfort level and degree of difficulty are different from the average viewer’s, but the overall upheaval is still the same. Putting together each episode of The Tonight Show is now quite literally a family matter—his daughters frequently appear onscreen, doodling while not-laughing at Daddy’s jokes—which drives home the message that we’re all in this together. Even the guests, who always come with a charity to promote, are stuck at home like the audience, working through some of the same fears and uncertainties, leading to much looser interviews.

Purcell is adjusting to the new normal, too. He’s performing his duties as showrunner while making sure his 12-year old and 15-year old kids are doing their school work. He can no longer walk down the hall and pop into people’s offices to help connect the dots across each episode. Instead, he’s running the writers room over Zoom, which a lot of the younger writers glommed onto instantly, and conducting daily production meetings that way as well.

The grind of getting each show wrapped is the same as ever.

It’s just migrated to the virtual world.

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Perhaps the greatest difference in the finished product is the tone. Fallon isn’t keeping up any kind of normalcy charade. He’s still the consummate entertainer who plays goofy games with Lady Gaga, but he’s doing it while confronting the dark reality of the current moment. He doesn’t appear panicked or even nervous, but his face frequently telegraphs the gravity of the situation, sometimes even when he’s about to make a joke.

“You’re processing this stuff in real time and so is Jimmy,” Purcell says. “When you’re in front of a studio audience there’s a large performance aspect to it, and this is a little more intimate. He is being honest and feelings are coming across in what I think is a good way.”

Purcell, Fallon, and the whole team are being nimble in making adjustments to the show. They’re testing the waters of interactivity with guests, like having the host and Demi Lovato paint each other’s portraits, and generally pushing the boundaries of what this show can be in its new format. Indeed, the more freewheeling feel of the interviews is one of several things that the production team is contemplating keeping incorporated into the show even when things get back to normal-ish. The coronavirus may have limited the production possibilities for musical numbers and sketches, but it hasn’t limited the cast and crew’s resourcefulness and creativity.

“I’m a big believer in the idea that you’re a better creator in a box than in an open sky,” Purcell says.

Until we can all be out in the open sky again, at least we have The Tonight Show to watch inside our boxes.

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