Fallon Fast

Saturday Night Live's prime player is rapidly outgrowing television's small screen

Things you will learn from a forthcoming oral history of Saturday Night Live: Dan Aykroyd slept with, among others, Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman and writer Rosie Shuster, the latter of whom was, at the time, married to the show's producer and creator, Lorne Michaels. To this day, Chevy Chase regrets leaving the show after its first season: "I still grieve," he says, "for all those years that I could have had there." John Belushi used to psyche out hosts, including Richard Dreyfuss, by pretending to be ill during the days before the show was to air in order to sucker punch them in front of the cameras. Newman once snorted heroin while a bulimic Radner vomited up a gallon of ice cream in a nearby bathroom. Michaels and Jane Curtin only communicated through Radner. Harry Shearer considered Billy Crystal a sell-out during their single season on the show. Several of writer Larry David's rejected SNLsketches would reappear years later on the NBC series he co-created, Seinfeld. Jan Hooks was repulsed by Victoria Jackson, because she was "a grown woman who spoke like a little girl." And every time Chase has returned to host the show, he's been despised by the cast--and, apparently, on some heavy doses of drugs.

Those are but a few of the revelations from Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller's forthcoming book Live From New York: An Uncensored History ofSaturday Night Live as Told by Its Stars, Writers, and Guests, which is excerpted in the latest issue of Vanity Fair. Some of these tales are old news, yellowed myth to those who were weaned on the 27-year-old show. If the excerpt provides any indication, the book's as much a gossipy gaze into ancient history as it is a solicitous look at how a show so erratic in quality has managed to remain relevant, or at least animate.

But what's most telling is how, toward excerpt's end, the story brightens: Backbiting and other acts of nibbling give way to a group hug; the sneer becomes a giant smile. If yesterday's Saturday Night Livewas defined as much by its sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll excess as its impudence and irreverence, then today's show is its polar opposite--a happy, if exhausting, place to work, the "fun" at long last extracted from the dysfunctional. Says head writer and Weekend Update co-host Tina Fey, "I would have been terrified if I was here back in the old days."

The many (cute) faces of Jimmy Fallon: With Will Ferrell gone, a bulk of the SNL burden will fall on Fallon.
The many (cute) faces of Jimmy Fallon: With Will Ferrell gone, a bulk of the SNL burden will fall on Fallon.

Perhaps no one better represents the new SNL--the shinier, happier version--than Fey and her Weekend Update partner, Jimmy Fallon, whose perpetually bemused grin and tousled hair suggest that somewhere beneath the shaggy exterior is very little interior. Fallon and Fey are the cutesy couple of late-night television, a tag team pretty enough to land on magazine covers and sardonic enough to brighten what had become SNL's bleakest of black holes during Colin Quinn's wobbly tenure behind the anchor's desk. Theirs is an Update of the absurd, a place where Chris Kattan's Gay Hitler drops by to offer a rose to Will Ferrell's Neil Diamond; where Fallon takes a pie to the face; where Fey will explain, with a bright smile, that Hugh Hefner's seven young girlfriends are with him only because "they were molested by a family friend." Fallon repeatedly refused Michaels' offer to audition for the job and accepted only when Fey signed on.

"Lorne was like, 'You could be the kid who's goofy, and she could be the girl who does her homework,'" Fallon recalls now. "And I tell you what, best move I ever made in my career. I love Tina Fey to death."

Not since Chase anchored Weekend Update has the segment been so popular; the show's ratings now rise, slightly, during the half-hour when Update airs. When they depart, and they will, it will leave a vacuum--and SNLwill, most likely, be allsucking sound once more.

Fallon especially has become SNL's latest breakthrough star, a former "featured player" who's transcended the late-night ghetto. He's done film, appearing in both Cameron Crowe's Almost Famousas bearded manager Dennis Hope and Woody Allen's due-in-2003 Anything Else, in which he stars alongside Jason Biggs, Christina Ricci and Allen. He appeared in the episode of HBO's Band of Brothers, "Crossroads," directed by Tom Hanks. Fallon hosted last year's MTV Movie Awards with Kirsten Dunst, and on August 29, he goes it alone as emcee at MTV's Video Music Awards, where he will introduce the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Eminem. Two days before that, DreamWorks will release his first album, a comedy-music hybrid titled The Bathroom Wall from which there will even be a single, the Leo Sayer-styled "Idiot Boyfriend."

He has become as ubiquitous as any SNLcast member since, perhaps, Mike Myers--a multimedia juggernaut at 27, if one takes into account his breezy, brooding 1999 book I Hate This Place: The Pessimist's Guide to Life, co-written with sister Gloria (as much as one can co-write a book with 12 words per page). In short order, he has become the show's most popular performer and managed to move to movies without quitting or pandering or, worse still, expanding a skit into a shit feature. There are no plans, at present, for a film about Nick Burns, Your Company Computer Guy, or Scully, the Boston teen with a hard-on for No-mah.

"The way I look at that is I am learning to be funny on Saturday Night Live," Fallon says from a hotel room in Los Angeles, where the night before he performed some stand-up commingled with Pink Floyd and Woody Guthrie covers. "I'm working with, I think, the funniest people in America, so why go do [comedies] when you have time off? Why don't you learn how to act? I wanna work with good directors, people that have guts and faith in me to teach me how to act, so I work with Tom Hanks and Cameron Crowe and Woody Allen--because they have faith in me, and I learn from them. Now, it's another key. I can go into two rooms, so when one party dies out I can go to the other one."

He laughs, which is something Fallon does often in conversation. Sometimes it's a giggle, barely audible. More often it's a chuckle that rolls into a high-pitched rumble.

"I never did this for money; I never will do it for money." He turns serious for a moment. "I did it for the love of it, and that's why I'm still doing it now. The way my record deal's set up, it's so shady I'm not gonna get anything from this, so it's like I'm promoting it because I'm proud of it. I'm not gonna make any cash off this at all. It's a comedy record. But how cool is that? That's the way I look at everything. I just hate wasting people's time."

That Fallon long resisted Michaels' advances to fill the slot vacated by Quinn is enormously ironic, given that working on SNLis quite literally the realization of Fallon's lifelong dream. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, September 1974, exactly a year before SNLdebuted, and grew up memorizing old tapes of the show his parents made for him and his sister. He idolized the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players and harbored ambitions, even as a child, to one day work on the show. After winning a local talent contest, he would even quit college in Albany, New York, to move to Los Angeles, where the comedy-club circuit promised an education better suited to one pursuing a life on a series devoted to sketch comedy. It's only fitting that Fallon would wind up on Saturday Night Liveas a featured player during the 1998-'99 season after impressing Michaels with his impersonation of ex-SNLcast member Adam Sandler.

Unlike most new cast members who languish for a season in the shadows, Fallon garnered attention almost immediately--by his fourth show, in fact. It was October 24, 1998, and Ben Stiller was hosting. Stiller was to slip into his signature impression--Tom Cruise, which he'd been perfecting for almost a decade on MTV and his own short-lived Fox series--for a Celebrity Jeopardy sketch. Fallon wanted to do Sandler, but several of the show's writers felt it wasn't appropriate: Sandler didn't have a movie coming out, he hadn't been gone from the show that long, he still had friends at SNL, you name it. Stiller pushed for it, Fallon says: "He really stuck up for me." About half an hour later, on Weekend Update, Fallon performed a handful of Halloween carols as various rock stars (as Alanis Morrisette: "Thank you, Mike 'n' Ike/Thank you, candy corn/Thank you, Smarties"). He was instantly pegged as the next Sandler.

"And I thought, 'That's cool. I love Adam Sandler. I don't mind getting compared to him,'" Fallon says. "Then I did a bunch of impressions, and then people said, 'Oh, he's the next Dana Carvey. He's trying to be Dana Carvey.' And I thought, 'That's cool. I love Dana Carvey. I always wanted to be like Dana Carvey. That's great.' Then I did something else with an accent, and they all go, 'Oh, my God, he's doing Mike Myers. Why's he doing that Mike Myers character?' So now I'm doing Weekend Update, and they're saying...well, I don't know what they're saying. But I'm waiting for the next comparison. You just go down the line getting compared till, eventually..."

Till, eventually, the impersonator becomes the impersonated?

"Yeah," Fallon says. "Lorne Michaels told me this story. It's a classic about an actor named Sam Levine. Lorne said there are four stages of acting. The first is, 'Who is Sam Levine?' Then it's, 'Get me Sam Levine!' Then it's, 'Get me a young Sam Levine!' Then it's, 'Who is Sam Levine?'" Fallon cracks up. "I always remember that. That's one of the funniest, coolest things I ever heard."

The Bathroom Wall is by no means a classic comedy album, in that the stand-up material--performed in front of an adoring college-campus crowd that cheers every other syllable--doesn't withstand repeated listenings. Most of the gags are geared toward underclassmen: They're jokes about dorm-room refrigerators (which are, you know, too small to hold anything but the ice-cube trays), a resident assistant who sounds like Chris Rock, the walk of shame back to the dorm after a night spent in someone else's room, fake ID cards. It's cute, but hardly so cutting it leaves a lasting mark; more like a surface wound, if that. And two of the eight comedy tracks are about troll dolls, with which Fallon's obsessed; more than anything, they offer him a chance to impersonate the likes of Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, U2's Bono and...Cliff from Cheers, which immediately makes this disc feel about 10 years old.

Actually, the whole album is something of an exercise in nostalgia, a naïf's trip down Amnesia Lane. One song, "Snowball," is about nothing more than the thrill of the snow day; Fallon recalls fondly the days he wore "moon boots and a hand-me-down snow suit." The country-rock "Drinking in the Woods," which is more Jackson Browne than Neil Young, was inspired by high school excursions into the forest, where Fallon and his pals would get drunk and half-remember lyrics to Steve Miller songs. Even when the disc wanders into "punk," on something like "Road Rage," it still sounds innocent--it's a kid holding a cigarette, but too afraid to actually light it. It's as though Fallon has made a record about looking backward in order to move forward, and he does not refute the sentiment.

"It's almost like closing the chapter on this part of my life," he says. "I've done this bit, this act, for, believe it or not, 10 years, and you go, 'What? Ten years?' Ten years later I'm doing troll doll bits. That's gotta drive a man insane. How Twilight Zoneis that? I'm not trying to cross over; I'm not trying to be a J. Lo. I'm just here to entertain...In 'Road Rage,' when I write lines like, 'If honking my horn don't get your attention/I'll stick my fist up your ass like my name was Jim Henson,' I want you to sing that so many times you'll go, 'Hey, why am I singing this?' The comedian's dream is you want everybody to hear you. That's why you're speaking through a microphone."

This, perhaps, is Fallon's most crucial period--a moment of ascension, yes, but also one of transition. When SNLreturns in October, it will do so without Fallon's friend and foil Will Ferrell; the audience surely wonders whether it can withstand the departure of its Most Valuable President. Fallon is under contract for two more years and wonders how much longer he can withstand the grind. There is a burgeoning film career to consider, and he's "definitely working on a script," suggesting he's aware of the inevitable need to move on.

"It's like, right now, I just wanna enjoy everything, and when the opportunity knocks, I'll weigh my options and ask Lorne, and he'll give me my blessings," Fallon says. "If he thinks it's smart to leave now, I'll leave now. Nothing's planned; nothing's in the cards. I'm having fun, and I don't wanna stay there when I'm not having fun anymore, and I go, 'This sucks,' because this was my dream. I don't want my dream to become my nightmare. Right now, it's all ice cream, and you go, 'Man, this is nothing but dessert. I don't wanna eat my greens. Just take as many pictures as you can. I'm here.'"

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