There's a reasonable chance, if you're reading this, that you've probably seen Jimmy Fallon sing "The Ballad of Steven Slater," his clever comic ode to the fleeing flight attendant.
What might be less likely is that you watched Fallon perform his song when he unveiled the number on his NBC late night talk show Aug. 10. You probably caught the viral clip later online, via links to his website, Hulu – or even on "Live with Regis and Kelly," where he played the tune for folks somewhat older than his usual viewers.
As he readies to host the Emmys Sunday night before his biggest audience yet, Fallon is roaming the airwaves and the Web in a bid to draw a crowd. The Emmys gig is shaping up not only as a key test of his mass appeal, but of whether he can effectively bridge the TV and Internet worlds, bringing in coveted young viewers at a time of audience fragmentation.
His campaign to get the public to tweet him material – he's soliciting funny introductions to some of the award presenters – has generated some snark, not to mention a big, mixed bag of entries (“Here's John Krasinski, the guy who's one to-camera smirk away from getting kicked out of this joint,” is one example). We’ll give Fallon credit for at least trying to make the show more interactive and create some interest among a demographic that might not be emotionally invested in, say, whether Tony Shalhoub wins for “Monk.”
Fallon started working the virtual room even before taking over the "Late Night" slot from Conan O'Brien some 18 months ago, launching a vibrant Twitter feed and posting behind-the-scenes webisodes aimed at building buzz.
He now commands about 2.7 million followers on Twitter – not quite half of tweeting champ Lady Gaga’s total, but more than any of his late night peers. While Fallon lags in the ratings among the major late night shows, he’s late-night TV’s most web savvy host, Forbes noted this month, citing a ranking by PeekScore.
Fallon has dedicated himself to attracting a younger audience attuned to the Web, making direct appeals to the geek set with gimmicks like his May “Watch Jimmy with Jimmy Week” (he live-streamed himself commenting on his show as it aired) and June’s “Video Game Week.”
But the strategy, at least, in the short term, is not a guaranteed recipe for success, as evidenced from the box office failure of the entertaining "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World," which was geared toward the gamer and comics crowd. The longer-term picture is even iffier, but the future of TV – and of franchises like “The Tonight Show” – will depend on drawing and keeping younger folks who have plenty of other media to keep them entertained.
For the Sunday, the bottom line will be whether Fallon, with or without fan tweets, is sufficiently funny and spontaneous to keep NBC’s three-hour Emmys show moving – much like another web friendly young performer, Neil Patrick Harris, did last year.
It's impossible, of course, to predict how Fallon will fare, but there are some positive signs. He’s thankfully lost much of the jumpy, I-can't-believe-I’m-on-TV vibe that worked in small doses on “Saturday Night Live,” but quickly became tiresome in his talk show’s early days. He’s more confident now, while maintaining his likable, unassuming charm. Fallon seemed at home during his recent stint with Philbin, who knows perhaps more than anybody how to make appearing comfortable on camera look easy.
So stay tuned: The most important verse yet in The Ballad of Jimmy Fallon likely will be written Sunday night.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.