When my mother and I sit down to watch TV, as with any family, there’s typically some contention over which program to watch. She’ll put up a fight against whatever sitcom is playing on a marathon loop and objects to the reruns of “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” that constantly air. After I berate her for her devotion to “The Voice” and sensationalized local news, we finally settle on yet another episode of “Friends” or some Katherine Heigl movie that’s already halfway through its airtime.
Yet, since I’ve gone off to college, every time I return home, we sit down every night promptly at 10:30 p.m. armed with snacks and mugs of tea to watch “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” What is it about this charismatic host and the series of parodies, celebrity guests and viral sketches that prompts my mom and I to overcome our differences and dedicate over an hour to watch his show? The same question can be asked of his nearly 3.9 million viewers.
Late night talk shows — a staple in many American homes — are more than just a reflection of the nation’s cultural climate. They’re a ubiquitous part of the nightly routine of viewers who — comforted by the regular presence of witty hosts carefully selected by networks — are a living part of the long tradition of late night TV dating back to the ’50s. With the succession of new late night talk show hosts in recent years, it’s important to note that this tradition has been carried out in much the same way, slightly varying with the experience and personalities of different hosts.
For Fallon, whose program rates highest among 18-49 year olds, his focus is endearingly rooted in a genuine desire to have fun and entertain audiences. Aided by a Grammy-winning band, the talented announcer and writer Steve Higgins and a long list of celebrity guests, Fallon exudes a youthful charm while embracing the show’s heritage. While this legacy predates the onset of my mother’s and my fascination with the show, its imminence can be felt in each episode. The feeling of being a part of something encompassing years of tradition and culture, something that began before my family’s arrival to the U.S., and has continued since, connects my mom and I not only to one another, but to a culture not fundamentally a part of our identities.
Though my mom and I grew up in two completely different worlds (she was born and raised in Israel, while I was raised in the U.S.), watching Fallon poke fun at presidential candidates and hilariously execute uncanny impersonations of celebrities bridges the cultural gap between us. As much as growing up with two cultures independent of one another was a gift, it also created a disparateness that I’ve had to work my whole life to reconcile. Part of this disparity was fostered by my mom’s dissociation from many aspects of American culture I had to learn on my own.
Almost 20 years later, however, the gap has grown smaller — in part due to the expanse of media that imbues American audiences with the nuances of its culture. For today’s young adults, who spend most of their time in front of screens, it’s rare to find a form of entertainment that grabs their attention while also appealing to their parents’ traditional sense of humor. Though late night TV has reached younger audiences, it has failed to represent and engage more diverse audience members — who are alienated by the predominance of white men hosting late night shows.
Despite issues of diversity, late night TV’s longevity contributes to a shared culture among audiences — something Fallon embodies. In a 2013 interview with GQ magazine, Fallon says of “Late Night” (the show that groomed him to take on his most recent hosting gig): “On ‘Late Night,’ it’s like we’re all in on the joke.” This attitude, carried on to “The Tonight Show,” has generated a similar feeling among audience members. And for an hour each night, this feeling temporarily relieves the discrepancy between the preferences and attitudes bred by the cultural and generational differences between my mom and me.