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Fallon boldly embarks on his 'work in progress'

For a late-night host planning to appeal to younger viewers up at 12:35 a.m., Jimmy Fallon sure is taking an old-school approach to guest invitations on his first NBC show Monday.

Robert De Niro and Van Morrison, who aren't exactly members of the iPod or Facebook Generation, kick off "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" when the former "Saturday Night Live" star takes over Conan O'Brien's time slot on Monday.

De Niro and Morrison seem to be odd choices for a show that will have interactive elements, three full-time bloggers, video posts from the Internet and a hip-hop house band, The Roots.

But the host, whose eighth-grade yearbook eerily predicted he would eventually take over David Letterman's time slot, sees the guests as youth-friendly.

"It's not about how old the people are on your show," said Fallon in a recent conference call. "It's not like if you get Chace Crawford ("Gossip Girl") means that we're a young show. [It's] what do young people think [is] interesting?"

The Brooklyn-born Fallon, 34, was interesting on the 45-minute call with reporters despite a stumbling start he'll have to avoid on-air if he wants to spare himself the bashing that Conan got after his first show in 1993. At the time, few critics could envision O'Brien not only surviving but thriving to the point that NBC would eventually give him "The Tonight Show."

Will Fallon follow the O'Brien script and become a surprising success? It may be best to remember the philosophy espoused by Conan in his 2006 appearance at the University at Buffalo about predicting show business success: "Nobody really knows."

Though his relative youth will be an asset in the talk show wars dominated by old-timers Jay Leno (58), David Letterman (61), Jon Stewart (46) and even Conan (45) and Jimmy Kimmel (41), Fallon clearly is a student of comedy history. He is thrilled to be doing his show from Studio 6B at 30 Rock, which he noted is where Milton Berle, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson all played.

Fallon also referenced a legendary comedian in explaining how he plans to deal with guests. "I believe it was Jack Benny who said, 'I'm not funny,' " said Fallon. "He said 'Rochester is funny, but people watch my show and they talk the next day at the water cooler and they say, guys, did you see Jack Benny last night, he was hilarious.' I'm just going to try to make my guests shine on my show."

He bravely chose De Niro as his first guest. "I think he's quintessential New York," said Fallon. "We like each other, but we're not buddies. I don't hang out at his house or anything. ... He never invited me over for coffee but -- if you get that 'Godfather' reference ... I think he also comes off as a tough interview and I thought that it'd be kind of good to have my first guy be probably one of the toughest people you can interview."

He's a big fan of Morrison, who was available because he is performing in New York City. "I grew up an Irish kid and he comes on your iPod in your brain when you're born," said Fallon.

It wasn't hard to get Tina Fey, his old "Weekend Update" co-anchor, for his second show and he plans to talk to her about her incredible year.

"I figured I'd call in the favors early," said Fallon. "She would do anything for me. She actually said that to me."

Fallon concedes that he'll have to develop as an interviewer, with the help of so-called bullet points supplied by his staff to start a conversation.

"The first couple I've done I've been a little nervous," said Fallon of his test shows. "I've been like, 'Hey, where you from? Connecticut. Oh good. Do you do impressions? Oh great. I heard you went on vacation, and you had a hang-gliding incident, oh good. We'll be right back.' And I was like, wait that was the worst conversation I've ever had in my life."

He also claimed to be a little uneasy about doing so many interviews before Monday's premiere, noting the show will be a work in progress (see Conan) and he doesn't want to be judged like movies on opening night. He certainly wouldn't want to be judged like his own movies, which were such disappointments that he decided to try late night.

He's been preparing for the job handed him by producer Lorne Michaels (who also hired Conan) by going on a standup tour for eight months. He knows he'll be comfortable doing sketches and the opening. Naturally, he'd gotten his share of advice. Conan gave him the Nike philosophy -- just do it and you'll learn. He said the advice that Stephen Colbert passed down from Conan and Carson may have been the best: "You will use everything you've ever known."

Of course, it helps the show airs at 12:35 a.m., when Fallon notes it is easier to experiment.

"I mean, honestly I just want to kind of keep people awake," said Fallon. "Or at least give you one joke to go to bed with."

Nobody really knows how difficult opening night may be, but Fallon knows he'll have it easy compared to O'Brien.

"I don't think anyone could put up with what Conan was given when he first started," said Fallon. "I mean that poor guy went through the ringer like it was crazy almost; that was insane. There wasn't anyone who liked him at first and he stayed in the ring and stayed up and you've got to respect him for that. So, I mean, as bad as a ribbing as I could get for this, I don't see it being that bad."



"Late Night with Jimmy Fallon

premieres 12:35 a.m. Monday

NBC Channel 2


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