"NBC was like, ‘This is going to flop,’ " Fallon recalls. " ‘This is going to be like Chevy Chase’s show.’ " That legendary catastrophe was pulled from the air after just one month. "They were comparing me to that."
The point is, Fallon knew he was an odd choice—he got it. He had his writers use it almost immediately. “You loved him on SNL!” show announcer Steve Higgins declared in an early skit. “You hated him in the movies! Now you’re ambivalent.”
Fallon wasn’t edgy. Fallon wasn’t dark or complicated. Fallon was perhaps too cute for late-night audiences used to hanging out with the snarky, cool crowd. “Yeah, the cool crowd was always beyond my grasp,” he says. He means this literally. “Like, my parents had a fence, a chain-link fence, and my sister and I were not allowed outside it.” This was in upstate New York—Saugerties, Irish Catholic, strict. “I was only allowed to ride my bike in my backyard,” he says. He rode in a circle, round and round, carving a dirt track. “Like Gus the polar bear at the zoo? That was me. Kids would say, ‘What are you doing, man? Come out.’ I was like, ‘I can’t.’ We got a rope swing. On a tree. We had to wear football helmets to ride the swing. Kids could see us. They would pull up on their bikes so they could watch the Fallon kids, so weird. You know, ‘Why are you wearing football helmets?’ We’re like, ‘So we don’t hit our heads!’ “
His parents had parties; that was the entertainment. “Parties where everyone drinks and performs. I did a Rodney Dangerfield act.” He studied Dangerfield’s No Respect album—minus the curse words. His dad, as family lore goes, had located all the bad words on the vinyl recording and painstakingly scratched them out with a car key. “I would listen over and over. I didn’t know what the word was. I didn’t care. I wanted the jokes.”
A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer in your pants, said the quote under his high school yearbook picture. He dropped out of college his senior year to pursue comedy in L.A., where Michaels found him, laughed at his Adam Sandler impersonation, even though Michaels famously never laughed during auditions. Seeing Michaels bury his face in his hands, crack up like that, it answered everything. “Every birthday cake I cut,” he says. “Every shooting star, every coin in the fountain, I wished: SNL.”