How Barbara Walters Pumped Up 'The Tonight Show'

Did you know that Barbara Walters was once a regular guest host of “The Tonight Show”? Neither did I. Apparently she used to fill in on occasion for Johnny Carson, back when she worked for NBC on the “Today” show.

Oddly, I learned about Walters’ involvement with Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” when she appeared Wednesday on Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight.” I use the word “oddly” because since Fallon has taken over as host of “The Tonight Show” the show has played more like an inventive comedy revue than a talk show of genuine substance from which one might glean interesting information. That seems to be working out just fine for NBC, because the show has been attracting a greater number of young viewers than it had during its final years with Jay Leno at the helm, but less so for those of us who appreciate talk shows that offer something more.

Fallon and his team of talented producers and writers are modern masters at coming up with funny things for his big-name guest stars to do, from Seth Rogen and Zac Efron appearing with Fallon in drag for that “Ew” sketch to Jennifer Lopez competing with him in a tight-pants dance-off. It’s all good -- to a degree. There has never been a television host as adept as Fallon at performing in segments that so consistently go viral, although Jimmy Kimmel is no slouch in that department either. These guys can fill a Web channel with more dynamic content than any of those YouTubers who are currently amassing mass audiences of their own.

Still, some nights I find that I am just not up for an hour of Fallon’s worshipful cheerleading, telling all of his guests how much he likes them and loves everything they do. There’s nothing wrong with saying nice things about guests -- all talk show hosts do it, and I imagine their celebrity guest pipelines would dry right up if they didn’t. But it can sometimes feel a bit monotonous or repetitious if it isn’t interspersed with conversation of some substance or an occasional emotional swell of the kind that Carson and Leno were both good at, especially the former. Both men infused their “Tonight” shows with liberal doses of silly humor and goofy sketches (some of which, like Ed Ames’ legendary tomahawk toss, went viral in their own way even before there was an Internet). Carson was a bit better at turning on his intellect when the time was right, although Leno was able to do so, too.

But Fallon is all fun all the time, which makes the occasional moment of substance somewhat startling and leaves him looking like he isn’t sure what to do. There was no better example of this than the recent appearance by Jonah Hill, whose busy promotional swing for the feature film “22 Jump Street” took on excess weight when cell phone video of him screaming a homophobic slur of some kind at an unrelentingly pushy paparazzo hit the ‘net. Hill apologized for this on a number of talk shows, but he really poured his heart out on “Tonight,” opening the door for an important conversation (not simply about tolerance but also about privacy, now an increasingly quaint and distant concept). Fallon was properly sympathetic for a few moments, but was happy to shut that door and get on with the humor-making with which he is most comfortable.

No, I don’t want “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” to become “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” But I’m always interested in hearing what celebrities have to say about serious topics and how those topics may relate to certain events in their lives. I was really sorry to see Fallon’s conversation with Diane Keaton -- a wild card personality I could listen to for hours – cut short in favor of a silly game of wine pong, because her appearance on the show came so soon after her public defense of former boyfriend Woody Allen in the matter of the most recent controversy involving Mia Farrow and her children. Maybe she had made clear that she wouldn’t talk about that, but I would rather have listened to her talk about the details of her day, which she always makes interesting, than watch her gulp wine and toss plastic balls.

So I’m always happy when something memorable pops out of one of Fallon’s conversations with his guests, like Joan Rivers reminiscing about Johnny Carson discovering her in the Sixties after she had toiled for many years in a West Village comedy club. Rivers’ eventual rise to guest host of the show and her legendarily combustive departure resonated throughout her storytelling. (I wish Fallon would have her back, and soon, to further reminisce about some of her experiences on “Tonight.” I’m sure many of them are priceless -- and Rivers is hotter than ever thanks to her hit show “Fashion Police” on E!)

Similarly, I was pleased the other night to find out something I didn’t know about Barbara Walters while she was chatting with Fallon (and it was great to see that clip of her dancing with Ray Bolger during one of her “Tonight” hosting gigs). Another thing I learned during their conversation is that she hasn’t really “retired” -- she has simply left “The View.”

I hope the people who book talent on “Tonight” try a little harder to bring to the show people with something genuinely interesting to talk about, at least some of the time, and that they remember that sometimes the old folks really do have the most interesting stories to tell. I also hope Fallon learns to lean forward a bit more and get people talking about something other than their latest awesome accomplishments. 

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