“Are you lying to me?” Jimmy Fallon asks.
Fallon is staring at his reflection in the mirror, contemplating how to answer. “I might be,” he says sheepishly. “But wouldn’t you know that already?”
He raises a good point. If you’re interviewing yourself and you tell a lie, shouldn’t you be the first person to recognize it? And even if you do, do you call yourself out as a liar, or let it pass?
“I think I’d always let myself off the hook,” Fallon says. “It’s like playing poker against myself. There is no way I can lose.”
It’s a good year to be Jimmy Fallon. Actually, any year is a good year to be him, but 2014 promises to be one for the history books. It’s the year where he took over as host of the Tonight Show, following in the footsteps of iconic comedians like Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and (all too briefly) Conan O’Brien. If he’s lucky, this will be the job he does for the rest of his life, the one that defines him and his comedy legacy. For better or worse, it’ll be on his tombstone someday. All eyes are on him, and the country wants to know, “Who is the real Jimmy Fallon?”
We could’ve sent a writer to grill Fallon for details, and write a profile based on lucky guesses and Google searches. They’d remind us how Fallon first shot to stardom on Saturday Night Live in the late 1990s and early 2000s, where he co-anchored Weekend Update with Tina Fey. They’d mention the movies— the good ones, like Almost Famous and Fever Pitch—and how he took over hosting Late Night in 2009, taking the reins from Conan O’Brien. But these are just bullet points in Fallon’s remarkable career. We want something more than that. We want a peek inside the brain of one of late night’s biggest superstars.
And then it hit us: Who knows Jimmy Fallon better than Jimmy Fallon? Nobody! If anybody should be interviewing Jimmy, it’s Jimmy.
And that’s how Fallon ended up here, in his dressing room at Studio 6B at NBC Studios in New York City; the exact same studio, coincidentally, in which Johnny Carson hosted the Tonight Show for a decade before taking it to California in 1972. He’s prepared for what may be the most intense, no-holds-barred interview of his life. But Fallon isn’t nervous. “I like talking to me,” he says. “This is actually therapeutic.” Which isn’t to say he’ll be going easy on himself. Far from it. Fallon is prepared to ask himself the tough questions, even the questions that make him uncomfortable. Why does he do it? “Because I’m a glutton for punishment,” he says. “I like to annoy myself, because I’m funnier when I’m in a bad mood.” This leads to a discussion about how comedy often really does come from sadness. “Whenever we have a writer on the show who goes through a break-up, I get excited,” Fallon says. “Because I know they’re going to write some amazing stuff.”
See? It’s working already. These are the kind of intimate details you can only get when you’re your own interviewer.
Fallon shifts nervously in his seat. Fallon is unrelenting in his line of questioning, and Fallon isn’t sure how much of this he’ll be willing to endure. Only Fallon is charming and skilled enough to get Fallon to start spilling his secrets.
JIMMY FALLON: Remember that time as a kid when I knew I was gonna be a talk-show host? Wait, is that a real story, or am I just making that up?
JIMMY FALLON: Yeah, that never happened.
Sorry. I should have known that.
You really should’ve. You’re not prepared for this interview at all, are you?
Doesn’t seem that way. So you never daydreamed about hosting the Tonight Show as a kid?
Not really. The Tonight Show didn’t seem like an actual job that you could have. All you remember is you watched Johnny Carson, and you never thought he would retire. I didn’t even know what that word was. I thought he would live forever. So there was no possible way for that to be a dream of mine.
What did you dream of being when you grew up?
You’ve forgotten already?
No, I remember. I just want you to say it out loud.
My dream was to grow up and get a job at IBM, like my dad. That seemed like a logical dream.
But did we actually want to do that?
Oh yeah. When you were a kid, it seemed like an awesome job. I’d get to go to work and have a briefcase. I loved how Dad wore a tie and got a car. I didn’t know if all those things came together. I’d see my dad go off to work and we’d wait for him to come home, and we’d all be excited to see him. I just thought, well this is obviously what you do when you get older. And I ended up going to college to major in computer science.
Was I doing comedy at that point?
You were into it. But you also were really worried about whether you’d make it, and your parents were worried too. They didn’t think it was going to work out for you, so they made you take a postal exam just in case.
A postal exam? They wanted you to be a mailman?
Oh yeah. And I was into it too.
That seemed like an exciting career prospect?
It would’ve been amazing. You’re good at numbers, you’re good with people, you like to wear shorts in the summertime.
That’s a perk?
That’s a huge perk. I think it’s probably one of the reasons people become mailmen. You also get to drive in that vehicle that should be illegal in the United States, where the steering wheel is on the other side. They have no rules! They are the punk rock of government jobs.
Is that our plan B, if hosting the Tonight Show doesn’t work out?
Absolutely. You’ve never had a job that you thought was secure. You don’t think the Tonight Show is risk free. Especially when you saw what happened with your buddy Conan O’Brien. There is always a Plan B.
So if we get kicked off the Tonight Show…?
I am ready to apply to the post office.
Let’s be optimistic. Give yourself a pep talk.
For me or you?
Both of us. Give us a reason to get excited.
[Suddenly very serious.] All right, Jimmy. This is The Tonight Show. This is one of the biggest franchises in NBC history, right behind The Blacklist and The Voice. When you were a kid, and you asked your parents if you could stay up late to watch Johnny Carson, it was a privilege and a treat. There’s going to be a kid out there somewhere asking their parents, “Can I stay up late to watch Jimmy Fallon?” Don’t ever forget that. That is the original viral marketing, long before the Internet existed. And that kid might grow up to be a comedian or a talk show host. You are setting the tone for the future. You want to make that kid laugh so he goes to school and tells all his friends the funny joke he heard from Jimmy Fallon.
We could have this job forever.
Forever! And it’ll never be this good again. NBC won’t be giving you furniture every year. You won’t ever get this much attention again. You know that. So just try to enjoy it as much as you can.
Did the pep talk work? Did you inspire us to greatness?
Actually, I think I just terrified myself.
There’s an old cliché that nice guys finish last. Obviously that hasn’t been the case with us. Am I the exception that makes the rule?
I’d like to try and reverse that cliché, or at least tweak it a little. Maybe it’s just true that most nice guys finish last.
Has being nice helped our career?
Oh yeah. I remember people saying to us, “You’re too nice. Hollywood is going to eat you up and spit you out.” I never listened to them. It just seemed like a distraction. For me, it’s always been do your work, work as hard as you can, and try to make everything the best you can do. And at the end of the day you have to live with yourself. I like living with myself. I mean obviously, because here I am interviewing myself.
I like you too, Jimmy.
Though I think you owe me money.
Why’d you have to bring that up?
It’s been a while, man. Why do you keep avoiding me?
I told you I’ll pay you back. I just need more time.
Of all people, I thought I could trust you.
Is it weird being interviewed by somebody who knows everything about you?
And vice versa.
Nobody knows us like we do.
Well, I don’t know what you’re drinking anymore. Remember when you were into Brandy Alexanders for a couple of months? You were trying to be Harry Nelson and John Lennon?
How did that work out for me?
Oh, we gained a lot of weight. That’s like going to a party and drinking eggnog.
Because this is Men’s Health, we should probably talk about how I’m keeping in such amazing shape.
Oh Jimmy, you really are. And you’re doing it in spite of the beer and pizza and the chicken wings you found at this awesome Korean chicken wing place that you go to at least once a week. But go ahead, Jimmy, lie to yourself. Tell yourself you’re in great shape.
Don’t make this about me. You’re the one who made those bad decisions. I try to make you eat yogurt occasionally.
That’s right, go back to those moments where you thought you did something healthy for yourself. And lie to yourself that you didn’t eat a bar of chocolate a few hours later. A whole Snicker’s bar. That is like five Whitman Sampler’s lined up.
Do you consider yourself physically attractive?
Jimmy, where do I begin? The good news is no one will ever ask to sculpt you. You never have to worry about that.
But you still go to the gym?
Oh sure, you have to. But it’s something I worry about when I’m working out. I don’t want to get too fit. Because I don’t want the new DaVinci of this Millennium to say, “You. I have found my muse. I have to sculpt you.”
It takes patience to be a sculptor’s model.
You have to sit still for hours. I can’t do that!
They say being on TV makes you look heavier. How many pounds does the camera add?
Let’s just say 30.
I think it’s more like 10.
You heard incorrectly.
No, I’m almost positive it’s 10.
I feel like you constantly think of yourself as heavier than you are.
So why not exercise more?
You try to. You run on the treadmill. But Jimmy, you need to stop watching The Food Network when you’re doing it. That is how you torture yourself. It’s not motivating you to watch Guy Fieri eating a giant hoagie, with the grease dripping down his face, laughing and having a good time while you’re sweating and out of breath. That just makes everything worse.
You’ve had your share of workouts on Late Night. There’s the “History of Rap” bit we do with Justin Timberlake. That’s pretty physically demanding.
We have to be at least in semi-good shape to pull off all that dancing.
Well, it didn’t come naturally. I remember watching Soulja Boy on YouTube over and over again to prepare for it. For the first one, I was up all night in my kitchen, practicing the dance, because I knew I had to dance with Timberlake and that guy can dance. And you, Jimmy Fallon, cannot dance.
I thought I did okay.
But that’s just because you over-rehearsed it. You didn’t stop until finally your wife came into the kitchen and said, “Honey, it’s 1:30 in the morning. You have to stop this. Just go to sleep.” It’s like cramming for a test. If you don’t know it, you’re not going to learn it tonight. You don’t know the Pythagorean Theorem. Just go to sleep, dude.
Here’s something I’ve always wanted to know. Are these interviews ever genuine?
You mean the one we’re doing now?
Yeah. Aren’t these just pre-scripted by a team of comedy joke-writers? How much of what I’m saying at any given moment has been written for me, and how much is off the cuff?
This is just me talking to me here. This is down and dirty. This is as real as it gets. There is no team of writers. It’s just you in an office, staring at yourself in the mirror.
What about socially? Have I ever been on a date without at least one comedy writer?
I haven’t been on a date in awhile. I went on maybe two dates in my whole life. There was that one time you went to see Groundhog Day with a girl. You remember that?
Let me guess. You ruined it, right?
Oh my god, yes. When it was over, I said to her, “Well, I guess I’ll see you later.” And she was like, “You want to get something to eat?” And you were like, “I can’t, I have to go to a party later.” She was like, “All right, I guess this was fun.”
Wow. That’s terrible. You really did that?
I did. You were there! You realized it the next day. You were like, “Oh crap, I think she wanted me to come back to her dorm room.”
I was a moron.
You really were.
But so were you.
We can share the blame for this.
And yet I ended up married. How did that happen?
Yeah, you lucked out. You are a lucky guy. You have the best wife in the whole wide world and the coolest baby. And now you’re going to get the coolest job.
What have we learned about women over the years? What’s the Jimmy Fallon secret to ending up with a fantastic woman?
The truest thing I can say is, sometimes you just know. But that’s terrible advice. The only people who say that are the people who just knew. How do you know unless you found that person?
Is that all I’ve got? No other sage dating wisdom?
I think you just look for the person you have the most fun with. And that’s enough. You realize, “Wait, I can just keep having fun with her forever?” Yes, you can do that. That is the key. It’s the secret. Look at Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
They had fun forever.
They really did. It can be done.
How do I define success?
Success is…. happiness. Is that too Deepak Chopra?
No, I like it.
I feel like I’m being too Zen. I’m inhaling too much patchouli and incense. It’s embarrassing.
Are you being honest?
About the patchouli?
No, about the happiness?
Then how is that embarrassing? You don’t have to impress anybody, least of all me.
I can’t fool you.
This is a private moment, just between the two of us.
What were we talking about again?
Success is just happiness. When you are happy, that is success.
Okay, then what’s the secret to happiness?
[Long pause.] Wow. Now we’re getting really deep. We’re spelunking into a cave of thought. The key to happiness. Hm…. There are just so many factors. I think it’s just a way of being. It’s about…. every little thing in moderation. Whether it be stress, anger, joy, depression.
Depression? Happiness is about being depressed?
Oh yeah. That’s a big part of happiness. If you deny those feelings, you’re missing out. Everything in moderation. [Pause.] Wow. That was exhausting.
You don’t often contemplate these questions with yourself?
Not in one sitting. Do you need an aspirin?
I’m okay. You have a headache?
That was just… intense. Thinking about all that—what it means to be happy—I think it overloaded your brain.
When was the last time you paused and thought, ‘This is it. I’m totally happy right now?’
What was I doing?
Yeah. You seem like a happy guy in general.
Thank you, so do you.
But what was a high point for you? When are you, we, Jimmy Fallon, at his happiest?
You’ve had a lot of those. You have a baby, which you’ve been wanting for a long time. You felt very lucky that it happened at all.
We had a long struggle with that.
I think that makes you slow down sometimes and appreciate the little things. There’ll be nights when you’re just sitting on your couch, and you’re with your beautiful, who you still can’t believe married you, and your beautiful baby, who you feel endlessly grateful that you were able to have. And your dog.
Our dog is amazing too?
Oh my gosh, we have a really, really great dog. It doesn’t bark. My dog almost smiles, which is weird. He’s just a very happy dog. So you’re sitting there, with your wife and your baby and your smiling dog, and you’re watching Real Housewives getting into fistfights on TV. And you go, ‘How great is my life? I’m so happy right now.’
That trumps hosting the Tonight Show?
It really does. That’s what true happiness is right there.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the March 2014 issue of Men’s Health.)