“Late Night with Jimmy Fallon”
Weeknights at 12:35 a.m.

3.5 out of 5 stars

“A smart man would leave now.” That’s how Jimmy Fallon, the new host of NBC’s “Late Night,” began the monologue of his first show. But smart television connoisseurs would never dream of leaving their couches when Fallon’s on — watching him develop into a lovable late night companion is just too darn fun to miss.

You’ll laugh as he playfully dances, you’ll cringe at the occasional line-botching and you’ll breathe a sigh of relief after he clears each hurdle. In short, taking in Fallon on a nightly basis is truly like raising a child in fast-motion.

Right before our eyes, Fallon, after a somewhat shaky start, is maturing into a competent and extremely likable host. He has mounted an impressive campaign to win America’s affection since taking over the reigns of “Late Night” from Conan O’Brien.

To describe Fallon, and by extension, his show, just one word is needed: fresh. His face is fresh, his attitude is fresh, his studio is fresh, the way he interacts with his audience is fresh and, hell, his house band (The Roots) is as fresh as it goddamn gets. For a late night scene that has remained relatively stagnant in recent memory, Fallon brings a much-needed jolt of youthful vigor.

Accordingly, Fallon channels his technological prowess to connect with the younger, hipper crowd — a demographic that’s up to its ears in iPhones and other digital-age doohickeys. On air, he has framed audience members’ heads in phony Facebook profiles, asked celebrity guests questions he received from fans via Twitter and started a segment called “Online Video of the Week.” Fallon unquestionably owns the title of late night techie. (Big money says Jay Leno can’t even send an e-mail.)

And that’s not the only element differentiating Fallon’s “Late Night” from his competition; he’s obsessed with getting people to share in his fun, whether that entails challenging celebrity guests like Cameron Diaz to dance-offs, coaxing audience members to lick random objects (like lawnmowers) for $10 or picking one lucky person from the peanut gallery to serenade Jon Bon Jovi.

The name of Fallon’s game is participation — everyone from the guest’s chair to the cheap seats must feel the love. His interactive intent is even perceptible in the setup he uses for musical guests’ performances: Audience members can shuffle onto two porches overlooking the stage, where they can tap, clap or dance along with the action below.

Still, praising Fallon so early might seem odd to some — his palpable rawness and inexperience can’t be easily overlooked and his magnetic boyish charm isn’t enough to nullify all his shortcomings. It’s true that Fallon rarely hits one out of the park during opening monologues, despite all his years of “SNL Weekend Update” experience. It’s also true that Fallon’s interviewing skills aren’t yet up to par — his first interview fell just short of a train wreck (though that’s partially Robert De Niro’s fault, who is an abysmal interviewee). But it’s hard to fault Fallon for not being perfect right out of the gate. In fact, it’s almost better that he’s not.

In times when Americans prefer to knock back culture as a shot rather than slowly relishing it like a fine wine, it’s easy to dismiss Fallon because he has a lot to learn as a host. It’s also easy, for the same reason, to fly into the open arms of one of Fallon’s more proven competitors, like Craig Ferguson or Jimmy Kimmel. Yet sticking with Fallon in his earliest of days promises to afford quite a view; here is a man coming into his own; here is the next big thing. Here is the genesis of Jimmy Fallon. Now that’s something you don’t see every night.

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