Saturday Night’s Children: Jimmy Fallon (1998-2004)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 35 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
Last Friday, Eddie Murphy appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon for what Judd Apatow called his “favorite talk show interview all year.” Not only was it cool to see Murphy return to 30 Rock after so many years, but watching him answer questions about his SNL characters by fellow former cast member Jimmy Fallon showed just how much these two represent different ends of the spectrum — Murphy as the breakout megastar who avoided the show until recently, and Fallon as the quintessential comedy superfan-turned late-night mainstay. No matter what role Jimmy played — an impatient office IT nerd, disco pop singer, or college pothead — he brought that same giddy energy to all of his characters.
Fallon was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Saugerties, New York. He developed an interest in entertaining at a young age, learning to play guitar at thirteen and impersonating even earlier at just two years old: “I don’t really remember it,” he said, “but my parents have it on tape. I did James Cagney. My mom said, ‘Do James Cagney,’ so I said, ‘You dirty rat.’ As a teenager, I imitated everyone on Saturday Night Live. I did the classics like Steve Martin and Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy.” During his senior year of high school, Fallon won an impression contest at the Bananas Comedy Club in Poughkeepsie (he credits troll dolls with starting his comedy career), and after almost completing his Communications degree from the College of St. Rose in Albany, he started touring as a stand-up comedian and joined The Groundlings in Los Angeles.
Fallon didn’t make it on SNL after his first audition in 1996, but two years later he auditioned again with impressions like Jerry Seinfeld and Adam Sandler, the latter of which caught the attention of Lorne Michaels. “That was the first time anyone had ever done an Adam Sandler impression, because he had just got off the show,” he said last year. “I remember looking and seeing Lorne Michaels laugh.” Knowing Michaels’ legendary stoicism during auditions, Fallon said “it was like a Wonder Years moment.”
Fallon joined the cast as a featured player in 1998 alongside Horatio Sanz and Chris Parnell and quickly racked up a list of recurring characters like Nick Burns AKA Your Company’s Computer Guy (with his sarcastic catchphrase “You’re welcome!”), the dreadlocked eternal college student Jarret from Jarret’s Room, Z105 radio DJ Joey Mack (“Man in the box, get back in that box!”), high school heartthrob Randy Goldman from “Wake Up, Wakefield,” and Pat “Sully” Sullivan in the Boston teens sketches alongside Rachel Dratch as his girlfriend Zazu (“Denise, I’m wicked pissed at you”). He also impersonated celebrities including Barry Gibb, Carson “I am a massive tool” Daly, Dave Matthews, Jerry Seinfeld, Mick Jagger (“I’m pointin’, pointin’, pointin’ at you!”), Robin Williams, and many more.
In 2000, Fallon replaced Colin Quinn on Weekend Update and made SNL the edgy and fresh zeitgeist-at-large again thanks to his chemistry with co-anchor Tina Fey. It was Fey’s first year as a featured player (she was already head writer at the time), and her polished snarkiness made the perfect foil to Fallon’s little-brother energy. During Quinn’s stint, Fallon often appeared on the segment to sing songs about holidays like Valentine’s Day, Halloween, and Spring Break, and he continued even after he became an anchor.
Fallon left SNL in 2004 to pursue a film career, and while he found a few roles in films like Almost Famous, Taxi, Fever Pitch, and Whip It, his best work came from hosting gigs on the MTV Movie Awards, MTV Video Music Awards, and the 2010 Emmy Awards. NBC chose him to replace Conan on Late Night in 2009. He continues to impersonate celebrities on Late Night and his musical performances are some of the best parodies on TV right now — especially as Neil Young, Bob Dylan, or alongside Justin Timberlake in the History of Rap segments. Fallon has since grown with the show from its shaky beginnings to both the TV and internet success it’s become today.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.