Jimmy Fallon Playing with Celebrities: An Appreciation

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Is Daniel Radcliffe a good actor? Is Demi Lovato a good musician? Is David Beckham good at soccer and/or wearing nothing but underwear on billboards?

Who cares?!

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Here’s what matters: Are they fun? (Spoiler alert: Radcliffe: yes. Lovato: enough. Beckham: not so much, alas.)

Fallon & Lohan action shot
Action shot: Lindsay Lohan and Jimmy Fallon

We have an entertainer today who serves as catalyst, finding and releasing the fun from out of the depths of celebrity persona. That entertainer is Jimmy Fallon, currently of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, formerly of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. (The two shows are functionally the same; The Tonight Show is just a more storied brand.)

So, what can we learn about what it takes to be a good celebrity in America in 2014 from watching Fallon and various public figures act like 10 year old boys on TV—or, more to the point, YouTube? It comes down to what being a “good” celebrity means. The phenomenon at play here has nothing to do with talent, or even the extremes of fame. This is about being famous enough to get invited onto Fallon’s show, but then it’s about relatability, not taking oneself too seriously and, ultimately, acting like a person who doesn’t come across in thrall to soulless PR handlers and prepared talking points. Pretty basic, yet not everyone can do it.

I’m a sucker for very famous people doing undignified and silly things, while giggling. I grant this is a narrow scope for separating the good celebrities from the bad, but I submit that it holds up extraordinarily well in this context and others. This is essentially a corollary of the kind of thing found in Us Weekly’s “Stars, They’re Just Like Us!” feature, but, well, less boring and more charming.

Fallon somehow coaxes his guests to participate in arbitrary, ludicrous and often messy games—Fallon always joins in, too—that allow the guests, simply, to demonstrate personality and whimsy. Obviously, describing it that way makes it sound like the opposite of fun, but the excited, giggling, soggy movie stars really do speak for themselves. Here’s Ryan Reynolds:

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That is Fallon and Reynolds playing “Water War,” based on the children’s card game War, but whoever wins each hand gets to throw water on the loser. Hilarity does, indeed, ensue. In addition to Reynolds, Fallon has played this same game with Lindsay Lohan and with Jason Statham. Statham comes off pretty fun, but he can’t begin to compete with Reynolds and Lohan, who demonstrably are having the times of their lives.

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There’s plenty of playing Charades and Pictionary and Catchphrase on the show, which is fine, but a little on the nose, game-wise, and those clips miss the spark of creative élan that is evident in the wackier, made-up games. For example, Fallon raced The Hunger Games’ Liam Hemsworth through the halls on motorized beer cooler scooters, while drinking from a beer hat. On 3 separate occasions, Fallon challenged Radcliffe, Channing Tatum and Chris Meloni to “Sticky Balls,” wherein both competitors wear candy-colored Velcro suits and try to get as many Velcro balls as possible to stick to each other.

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Johnny Carson, while a brilliant talk show host, was somewhat less willing to flail around on the ground collecting, and un-gracefully throwing, Velcro balls than Fallon is. I don’t think Jay Leno would have done it, either, but I honestly don’t know; it never crossed my mind to watch any part of The Tonight Show during the (yawn) Leno years. Say what you will, but Fallon is definitely bringing a new and different sensibility to The Tonight Show.

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The last game I want to highlight for our immature delectation is “Egg Russian Roulette.” Represented on YouTube, Fallon has played this with Edward Norton, Seth Meyers, Tom Cruise and David Beckham.

Two-time Academy Award nominee Norton sits across from Fallon, determination in their eyes, trash talk on their lips. They take turns smashing eggs on top of their own heads—8 hard boiled, 4 raw; no one knows which are which until after the head smashing—and dissolving in giggles. It’s really very funny, and also both disgusting and kind of beautiful in slow motion.

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Oh, David Beckham. It saddens me to declare him no fun. Ironically, perhaps of all Fallon’s guests represented in the silly YouTube videos, he’s the one most associated with being famous for being famous. I know, I know…he’s a soccer player and model, and certainly accomplished at both. But he’s arguably better known for just appearing chicly in public with his wife, Victoria “Posh Spice” Beckham.

He’s a good sport, goes along gamely with the egg smashing; he even seems pleasantly bemused. However, he just doesn’t bring any charm. For a bona fide international, elite athlete, his trash talk and posturing are a disappointment. He even, rather sweetly, removes some soccer-ball print egg shell from Fallon’s forehead. But he comes off as shy and kind of short on personality, and the whole self-presentation just reads lamely on the screen.

It is not by accident that I described the aesthetic as 10 year old boy—the show’s shenanigans skew heavily male, because water throwing and egg smashing… There’s also something untenable about overdoing the spectacle of Fallon physically accosting female guests, however jokily. The water throwing flows freely between Fallon and Reynolds, but when it’s Lohan sitting across from him, Fallon reveals some discomfort and Lohan has to insist on being splashed. Lohan obviously got really into it; I hope the show expands its silly games talent pool moving forward.

The model of celebrity charm given a forum by Fallon’s joie de vivre is genuinely entertaining and far superior to other potential ways of being a celebrity. Just one example: Kim Kardashian. She is super, unspeakably famous, a celebrity pinnacle. I’ll confess to not being much of a fan, but from what I’ve seen, she seems particularly joyless and self-serious. Clearly, that’s working perfectly well for her, but it doesn’t even approach the way of being a “good” celebrity I’ve described here.

I’ll take Ryan Reynolds and Lindsay Lohan, et al., any day. If it’s wrong to want to watch adults throw water at each other or smash raw eggs on their heads, then I don’t want to be right.