‘You Never Knew Which Jimmy We Were Going to Get’: Sixteen ‘Tonight Show’ Staffers Reveal the Hellish Workplace Culture That Left Many ‘Suicidal’
This morning, Rolling Stone released a report compiling the accounts and experiences of 16 current and former employees of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon that exposed how working for the oft-maligned late-night star is a highly stressful, traumatic and degrading experience.
The article, titled, “Chaos, Comedy, and ‘Crying Rooms’: Inside Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Tonight Show,’” offered an unfiltered and unsettling look inside the workplace culture of fear and instability that current and former writers, production crew members and office staffers say is the only consistent aspect of The Tonight Show under Fallon’s reign. Since Fallon began his hosting tenure in 2014, the most prestigious show in late-night has seen nine different showrunners in nine different seasons, and, as one employee featured in the exposé put it, “Nobody told Jimmy, ‘No.’ Everybody walked on eggshells, especially showrunners.”
From Fallon’s alleged drunken delirium onset to abusive outbursts that once required the intervention of none other than Jerry Seinfeld, one would forgive Tonight Show staffers if they ever uttered one of the darkest phrases in comedy – “I miss Jay Leno.”
“I just don’t think they’ve landed on a leader who can keep it together,” one staffer said of the revolving door of ringleaders who have all left after a single year of wrangling Fallon. Another added, “You never knew which Jimmy we were going to get and when he was going to throw a hissy fit. Look how many showrunners went so quickly. We know they didn’t last long.”
The running theme throughout each employee’s account is that, on any given day, the Tonight Show staff can be treated to an upbeat, affable Fallon, or a petty, pernicious and prone to outbursts taskmaster who will take advantage of the slightest excuse to explode on an underling in front of the entire production team. “Sometimes we would get nice Jimmy, but that sometimes was not a lot,” said one ex-Tonight Show employee. “It was just really, really sad to me that this really talented man created such a horrible environment for the people there.”
Rolling Stone postulated that, based on the accounts of eight different employees, “Fallon’s behavior seemed to be dependent on if he appeared to be hungover from the night before.” Fallon’s relationship with alcohol has been the topic of gossip and speculation since 2016, when The New York Post ran a piece alleging that executives at NBC feared that Fallon’s drinking had gotten out-of-control and was impacting his ability to perform his duties on The Tonight Show. Fallon roundly denied the rumors.
However, four employees interviewed by Rolling Stone described three separate instances when Fallon was noticeably inebriated on the job, including one when his breath was pungent with alcohol and another more disturbing incident in 2017 when he seemed drunk to the point of delirium during a rehearsal. Allegedly, Fallon was scribbling on a sheet of paper listing his jokes for the night, crossed one out, then confusedly stared at the line; said one employee who was on set at the time, “He couldn’t remember he had just crossed it out himself. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, he (seems) drunk. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. This could be awful — this could be the end of the show right here.’” Another former staffer who was watching the live studio feed corroborated the story.
The result of Fallon’s erratic behavior was an atmosphere of terror and stress that permeated the entire production. According to many employees, the guest dressing rooms were unofficially renamed the “crying rooms” reserved for employees who were publicly lambasted by their mercurial boss for the smallest of transgressions. One such incident occurred when Jerry Seinfeld was on the show and a miscommunication caused Fallon to explode on the employee holding his cue cards, prompting Seinfeld to intervene. “It was very awkward, and Jerry (Seinfeld) was like, ‘You should apologize to him,’ almost trying to make it a joke,” a former employee said of the incident, noting that Fallon did, in fact, apologize at his guest’s insistence. “It was one of the strangest moments ever and so many people were there, so it’s kind of hard to forget.”
The most disconcerting through line of the Rolling Stone piece is how this culture of fear and punishment created by Fallon drove so many of his employees to a place of such mental deterioration that, based on too many accounts, suicidal ideation was disturbingly commonplace among Tonight Show staffers. One such former employee reported, “Mentally, I was in the lowest place of my life. I didn’t want to live anymore. I thought about taking my own life all the time. ... I knew deep down I would never actually do it, but in my head, I’m like, ‘Why do I think about this all the time?’”
Worse yet, another source said that, when they reached out to their HR representative about abuse they had received from former Tonight Show co-showrunner Jamie Granet-Bederman, they disclosed the suicidal ideation they were suffering from as a result of the workplace conditions, only to later discover through an email exchange that the same HR rep denigrated them to Granet-Bederman after the conversation. “That was super frustrating to me and kind of devastating because it felt as if I finally had someone on my side, and I quickly learned that that was not the case,” they explained.
What every current and former employee featured in the piece seems to relay is that, for all of Fallon’s abuses, erratic behavior and general awfulness, none of it would have been possible without the complicity and inaction of Universal Television, Broadway Video, Fallon’s production company Electric Hot Dog and NBC itself. Clearly, the limited blowback from the decline of Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show empire and culture of abuse made no impact on the way hosts are enabled to act as the worst versions of themselves possible.