Jimmy Fallon Wasn’t on NBC’s List of ‘Late Night’ Hosts But Lorne Michaels Got Him the Job Anyway

The only problem with Fallon taking over for Conan? ‘NBC doesn’t really want you’
Jimmy Fallon Wasn’t on NBC’s List of ‘Late Night’ Hosts But Lorne Michaels Got Him the Job Anyway

Jimmy Fallon’s post-Saturday Night Live dreams were to follow in the footsteps of Bill MurrayEddie Murphy, and others who transitioned from the show into comedy movie stardom. Lorne Michaels (as well as box-office reality) had other plans. 

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When Conan O’Brien began planning to take over for Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, Michaels called to gauge Fallon’s interest in becoming a late-night talk show host — maybe Fallon would be a good Conan replacement when the time came. Fallon revealed his response on the latest episode of the Strike Force Five podcast: “I don’t think so," he replied. "In six years, ask me, and if I’m around I’ll think about it.” (Leno’s “retirement” was still a ways off at the time.)

Fast forward a few years and Fallon had changed his mind. Fallon says his wife pushed him to reconsider, but post-2006, most of Fallon’s movie roles had been reduced to voice-overs in second-tier animations like Doogal and Arthur and the Invisibles. That had to make the change of heart easier. 

“So, I call Lorne, and I go, ‘I’m in. I’d love to do it,’” Fallon said. There was only one problem. Michaels told Fallon that “NBC doesn’t really want you.” Apparently, the network had a list of potential Conan replacements and Fallon’s name was conspicuously absent. Whoops.

Even Fallon understood NBC’s point of view. After leaving SNL in 2004, the comic didn’t have much to show on his comedy resume. Taxi with Queen Latifah was savaged by critics. Fever Pitch with Drew Barrymore fared a little better but was no home run. By his own admission, Fallon was still trying to get his post-SNL career up and running. 

Leave it to Lorne to change the network’s mind. Fallon’s old boss “went to bat” for him, even going so far as to issue an ultimatum: “Either you do this with Jimmy, or I’m not involved,” Fallon reported. “Or something like that.” NBC caved, and Fallon says Michael’s strong-arming “changed my life.”

History repeated itself when Fallon got The Tonight Show, another job that Lorne Michaels had something to do with. Seth Meyers was another former Weekend Update anchor who had no talk show plans for his future until he saw a New York Post article naming him as one of Fallon’s potential replacements on Late Night. Ring ring! Who could that be on the phone? Why, it’s Lorne Michaels!

“When you talk to Lorne, it often feels like a follow-up call to a conversation that never happened,” Meyers told his fellow late-night hosts on the podcast. “He literally just started saying, ‘You know, I think you’ll do it, and it will be good, and it will take time, but you’ll have Jimmy as a lead-in.’ There was again no moment when anybody ever said to me, would you like to do this?”

That didn’t matter, apparently. Both Fallon and Meyers have been entrenched for years, all part of Lorne Michael’s grand plan. Colin Jost, you might want to pencil in a late-night gig for 2028.

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