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Jimmy Fallon, like other late night hosts of his generation, borrows pages from the Johnny Carson and David Letterman playbooks. But Fallon, more so than the rest of the crowded after-hours comedy talk show field, also takes cues from the Dr. Demento and Weird Al Yankovic songbooks.
Sure, Craig Ferguson boasts some impressive musical chops, Conan O’Brien occasionally plays guitar and Stephen Colbert is blessed with a voice worthy of the Sondheim tunes he loves. But Fallon, with his talent for song parodies and dead-on imitations of the likes of Bob Dylan and Neil Young, has made music as much a signature part of his comedy as his "Thank You Notes" segment.
Fallon fans will have something to be thankful for Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET when NBC broadcasts the aptly titled "Jimmy Fallon's Primetime Music Special,” a compilation of some of his best musical moments from his past three-plus years on "Late Night." The special follows last month's release of Fallon's album, "Blow Your Pants Off," which includes his masterwork to date, "Tebowie," an unlikely Tim Tebow-David Bowie melding to the tune of "Space Oddity.”
Unlike Yankovic's most popular work ("Eat it" and "Like a Surgeon"), which put silly words to hit tunes, Fallon's particular charm, appropriate to this Internet-driven mash-up era, rests in borderline-surreal pop cultural juxtapositions: Dylan growling the theme to "Charles in Charge." Jim Morrison writhing through the theme to "Reading Rainbow." Neil Young warbling the theme to "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air."
While Dylan and Young haven’t joined Fallon on stage, other top acts are happy to be in on the joke. Bruce Springsteen teamed with Young/Fallon on goofy covers of “Whip My Hair” and “Sexy and I Know it.” Paul McCartney joined Fallon to sing “Scrambled Eggs” – the working title of “Yesterday” – using the original whimsical filler lyrics (“Scrambled eggs. Oh, my baby, how I love your legs…”). Justin Timberlake starred with Fallon and The Roots on the epic “History of Rap.” Even President Obama helped Fallon “slow jam” the news.
Fallon, whose show has featured week-long musical tributes to Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and other greats, clearly idolizes many of the iconic musicians he gently satirizes. It appears, at times, that he’s enjoying his parodies and occasional star-studded duets as much as the audience.
The special seems worth watching – and recording. While Fallon boasts perhaps the strongest online presence of any of the late night hosts, his music videos sometime can be hard to find in the weeks after airing. In the meantime, check out Springsteen and Young – er, Fallon – on “Whip My Hair”:
"Jimmy Fallon's Primetime Music Special” airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. on NBC.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.