Metamodern Pandemic Late Night: Fallon from the Basement

Jimmy Fallon performing his show from his basement during the Covid pandemic

A Metamodernism Sighting: Jimmy Fallon in the Basement!

During this COVID-19 pandemic and social-distancing lockdown, television and film production has ground to a halt, understandably. Plenty of series and films are already complete and in the post-production pipeline, giving us new content to catch up on for a while at least, but what becomes of the daily late-night talk shows? One of the last media phenomena that provide a unifying platform in these fragmented (even before Corona) times?

They’ve gone to the basement! Or the den, or the living room or the rec room… Jimmy Fallon, host of The Tonight Show, has in particular brought the metamodern vibe to the reinvented from-home nightly talk show format. 

The Tonight Show Home Edition debuted March 17. It’s a family affair: The camera is held by Jimmy’s wife, Nancy; the chyrons and other graphics are made by his daughters Winnie (7) and Frannie (6); and they all, along with the family dog, Gary (who seems to be female?), make spontaneous appearances.

A playful self-consciousness centered on the awkwardness of working without the standard studio resources is a constant aspect of the show, as is an understated nod to the challenges of getting anything “important” done while communing with children 24-7.

In Episode One, it is palpable that Fallon is unsure of himself performing his monologue without a live audience to laugh along. He gets a few laughs from Nancy, behind the camera, but his delivery is pretty dry. In fact, the funniest thing about the monologue is simply the earnest anxiousness that the veteran stage performer exhibits while reading jokes from a printed page. This actually works though. It is Fallon’s innate metamodern hyper-self-reflexive sensibility that transforms the mediocrity of his delivery into a statement of perseverance and a sort of self-acceptance that is beneficially contagious to the online viewer, similarly isolated; at home, but under unfamiliar circumstances.

In Episode Two, Fallon expands the format, using Zoom conferencing technology to bring in a guest, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of Hamilton. Miranda is at his digital piano in his own home and, off the bat, he explains that he’s trying to play something he imagines The Tonight Show’s band, The Roots, would play to introduce him if he were on the real, pre-pandemic full-production show. Then, after some catching up with Jimmy about his life under quarantine, Manuel plays a song from Hamilton. It’s somehow touchingly real to hear the shakiness of his internet connection distorting the music a little bit.

By Episode Three, Fallon has begun using a laptop-based laugh track to make him more comfortable during his monologue. It actually does make his jokes seem funnier, but the fact of him needing to use it remains awkward, which is funny and humanizing in itself, in a metamodern way. Later in the episode, actress Jennifer Garner Zooms in from her home. After chatting a bit, she reveals that she plays the saxophone and she and Jimmy decide to attempt a duet of “Happy Birthday.”  Not surprisingly, it doesn’t quite work, because limited bandwidth only allows one of them to be picked up at a time. By the end of the song, however, they’ve sort of learned on the fly to trade phrases rather than play simultaneously.  

At the time of this writing, Fallon has been producing the Tonight Show from home five nights a week for over 4 weeks. Some particularly metamodern moments include:

  • Nancy coming out from behind the camera and taking a walk with Jimmy, answering viewer questions about her life and their marriage (with Jimmy’s arm very obviously extended in self-camera-holding position).
  • Joe Biden guesting from his Delaware home. (The gravitas inherent in an appearance by a Vice President; and him showing up as guest on this low-production, basement version of the show, makes for a metamodern blend of seriousness and play.)
  • Jon Bon Jovi sharing a pandemic song for which he recorded only the first verse and a chorus, so that listeners from all over can finish it, telling their own stories.
  • Jimmy and Lady Gaga Facetiming Apple CEO Tim Cook, also in his basement, to secure a very large donation from Apple for a WHO/Global Citizen fundraiser show that Gaga is organizing.

Jimmy Fallon is not the only late night host doing his show from home, of course – you can find similar home productions from Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, John Oliver and more. For all of them, and each in their own way, there is something metamodern in how they embrace fragility–a fragility that stands beside a certain bravery in staying committed to their jobs: continuing to bring humor and graciousness in their roles as national party hosts, during this uncertain time.

Celebrities who normally both craft their livelihoods around the ability to get the attention of the outside world, and who also closely guard their privacy, now invite us to their previously off-limits homes. It feels intimate: Oh, that’s what the upholstery on Jimmy Kimmel’s living room couch looks like? That’s what’s on the Stephen Colbert household’s bookshelves? That’s the wallpaper Jimmy F. and Nancy chose for their rec room?

When we experience that “hey, they’re just like us!” feeling, it acts as a channel crossing to a different relational zone.

And perhaps one could say that the hardness of the times calls for a softer, more vulnerable and more metamodern kind of self-reflexivity.

Or, perhaps with at home being the normal of the moment, we may be allowing the raw, disheveled selves we are as we roll out of bed – as distinct from the selves we normally put together for the outside world – to range more freely. Even those who have the opportunity/obligation to show up for their regular jobs still come home each night to a version of the home that is intensified because of the extraordinary situation the world finds itself in. Maybe inhabiting the home is becoming more synonymous with inhabiting the self. In other words, people are dwelling at home in the psychological as well as the spatial sense, baring their private lives to the world in a way that shows a more vulnerable, softer, unaffected version of themselves.

Of course, there remains a vast asymmetry in the relationships between “regular people” and celebrities. Interestingly, these two sectors of society – the mainstream celebrities like Fallon broadcasting from their basements and many of us regular folks meeting up in Zoom cocktail hours – are converging on the territory of a third sector: the self-created worlds of the Youtubers and Instagram Influencers.

Perhaps staying at home is bringing out the metamodern in all of us?

An earlier post you may be interested in:
GQ Pegs Jimmy Fallon as Metamodern

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