What the Tonight Show’s new showrunner means for Jimmy Fallon

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 15: Rachel Maddow Visits "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" at Rockefeller Center on March 15, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for NBC)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 15: Rachel Maddow Visits "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" at Rockefeller Center on March 15, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for NBC) /

The late night rating wars are raging on and The Tonight Show has brought in an experienced television producer to help it compete. What does that mean for host Jimmy Fallon?

The fall has brought on a tight race in the ratings among late night television programs. With The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon holding a slim lead over The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, NBC announced a new hire to help cement Fallon’s spot over Colbert. Jim Bell has been hired as showrunner and executive in charge.

Bell, who will take over the Tonight Show position immediately, brings experience from the news industry. He served as executive producer of Today on NBC from 2005 through 2012. He also was a producer on the network’s coverage of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

The appointment of Bell follows the announced departure of Mike DiCenzo. DiCenzo was a writer for Fallon during the past decade, dating back to Fallon’s stint on Late Night. As well as a performer DiCenzo was one of three producers running The Tonight Show until he stepped down.

So if The Tonight Show is holding onto its lead over CBS’s Late Show, why would NBC look to bring on Bell? The fact is that Fallon’s lead over Colbert is marginal at best and likely to be lost as we head further into the fall and election season. Bell could reverse that change.

Colbert’s politics-heavy approach to late night has won him viewers from the more apolitical Fallon. Whereas the former Saturday Night Live cast member has been hesitant to get pverly political, Colbert has drawn on his Daily Show and Colbert Report experience to make criticism of President Trump a nightly focus.

Recall the backlash Fallon received when he had Trump on the show and ruffled the guest’s hair. Fallon was called out for his attempt to humanize Trump. On the other side, Colbert was much more confrontational when Trump was on his couch:

Jimmy Fallon is at his best behind the desk or playing games where the goal is to make the guest comfortable. He understands that late night shows such as his are now primarily marketing tools. Celebrities are there to promote a project and Fallon is looking to secure advertisers for NBC while getting laughs along the way.

The hiring of Jim Bell won’t put an end to that. Fallon will most definitely continue to churn out viral videos as he gets celebrities to open up in different ways and showcase them in a way different than with his competitors. It will be a mistake if the goal is to turn Fallon into a political commentator like Colbert. The model should be more like that of Jimmy Kimmel who criticizes the president nightly but in a less heavy-handed style than Colbert.

As Variety points out, CBS may have set the path when they brought in a news industry veteran to help Colbert. Chris Licht was hired as showrunner of The Late Show after years with Morning Joe and CBS This Morning. However, this move was much more to strengthen Colbert’s comedic voice rather than alter it. His early run taking over for David Letterman attempted to appeal to a broad audience and strayed from the satire that made Colbert a worthy successor to Letterman in the first place.

Expect The Tonight Show  to pay a little more attention to the news. Expect a little more variety in the guests as Fallon will likely be asked to chat with individuals outside of the entertainment industry. It will be an adjustment for the host, who is more comfortable going to an Olive Garden with Post Malone than trying to pull jokes amidst a nuanced sociopolitical discussion.

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And when there is that adjustment period and things seem a little rocky, Fallon cannot take the entirety of the blame. To be fair, he was not given Late Night or The Tonight Show to offer his take on politics. Nobody could have predicted the political climate of the past two years nor the role of late night television in driving discussion. Then again, no one could have predicted the guy who always cracked during Saturday Night Live would have the most coveted job in late night. Fallon could surprise us all again.