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Born in Brooklyn and raised upstate, in small-town Saugerties, New York, Fallon began playing guitar in his early teens, after first abandoning the piano, then the clarinet (“It’s not really an instrument for a kid to just jam out on at a party. ‘Wet your reed and start going for it!’”). The comedian’s household was a musical one: His father, Jimmy Sr., was in the Navy during Vietnam, and used to play the family reel-to-reel tapes of him and his shipmates singing Doo-wop. Led to believe Doo-wop was the soundtrack of the Vietnam era, the younger Fallon was confused when he first saw films like Platoon: “‘Hey, any Dion and the Belmonts in this? Where are the Passions?’ I’m not hearing any of the songs my dad listened to when he was in Vietnam, so how accurate is this movie? Turns out he’s just a nerd. Doo-wop had been dead for like 10 years.”
The younger Fallon had a nerdy streak, too. Around the age of 13, he became a devotee of L.A.-based oddball Dr. Demento’s syndicated weekly radio show, which exposed Fallon to everyone from old-school parodist Allan Sherman (“Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah”) to modern-day spoof king “Weird Al” Yankovic. Asked to name the first song parody he ever wrote, Fallon sheepishly recalls a wrestling-themed spoof of the 1986 Bangles hit “Manic Monday”: “I Wish I Was King Kong Bundy.” During high school, Fallon found a kindred spirit in classmate Gerard Bradford, now a Late Nightwriter. “We’d hang out in his kitchen or his bedroom and write lyrics on a pad and pass them to each other and read each other’s stuff,” says Bradford, who recalls making a boom-box recording of their rap song about Evel Knievel. (“It wasn’t that good.”)
Young Fallon also developed a knack for impressions (James Cagney was an early one) and began a well-documented obsession with Saturday Night Live (later, when he went off to college, he’d forego Saturday night ragers in favor of staying in and watching SNL by himself). Fallon remembers being drawn to the musical impersonations on the show, citing in particular a 1993 “Rock For Michael” benefit sketch, in which everyone from James Taylor (Kevin Nealon) to Eddie Vedder (Adam Sandler) takes to song in an attempt to change Michael Jordan’s mind about retiring.
By 1998, Fallon himself would be performing musical-comedy numbers on Saturday Night Live. After years of low-paying stand-up gigs and a stint studying at the famed Groundlings Theater in Los Angeles, he landed his dream gig by making SNL producer Lorne Michaels laugh – no mean feat – with his eerie-accurate Adam Sandler impression. Possessing nonthreatening good looks and mischievous-boy charm, Fallon became a break-out star just four shows in, when he performed “Halloween carols” in the style of Counting Crows, Matchbox 20, Alanis Morrisette and Marcy Playground on Weekend Update. (Ah, the nineties!) He’d do a total of six seasons of SNL, including four spent co-anchoring Weekend Update with Tina Fey, before leaving the show to pursue a movie career – a rare professional misstep, as anyone who saw him star opposite Queen Latifah in the 2004 bomb Taxi can attest.
The Late Night gig, in part, offered Fallon a chance to return to his musical-comedy roots. Bradford, who also wrote and performed with his old friend on The Bathroom Wall, says not much about their songwriting process has changed in the intervening years, though everything is “on a grander scale now, of course.” When it came time to write the new material for Blow Your Pants Off, the duo worked out of a spare room in the Manhattan apartment Fallon shares with his wife, film producer Nancy Juvonen. “There’s a calendar in there, and it was all pictures of wolves,” Bradford says. “We took these pictures of wolves and put them all over the walls. So we called it the Wolf Room. The mission was to write a bunch of songs in there, just really focus and knock ’em out. So we’d start writing for a half hour—then start drinking.” He laughs. “Everybody has their process. I’m sure Lennon and McCartney did the same exact thing.”
One of the tracks that came out of the Wolf Room sessions was the countrified “Cougar Huntin’,” featuring Nashville duo Big & Rich. And, yes, it’s a song about seeking the companionship of older ladies at the local watering hole. “Jimmy can say some really vulgar stuff, and it doesn’t come off as mean-spirited or vile,” says Big & Rich singer-songwriter John Rich, who counts himself as a friend and drinking buddy. “It comes off as the guy next door who told you a dirty joke and is almost embarrassed that he told it. Jimmy can pick up a guitar – he can really play, he can really write, he can really sing. It’s clever stuff, and it’s hook-driven. The guy could probably sit down and write hit country songs if he wanted to.”
As well-crafted as Fallon’s originals may be, it’s his impersonations of other artists that have established his name in the crowded late-night field. He sticks with the formula that’s worked for him his entire career, portraying very serious rock stars singing very silly things: his Bob Dylan performs the theme song to Charles In Charge, in a segment shot D.A. Pennebaker–style; his Jim Morrison yowls through the Reading Rainbow theme on a reproduction of the Ed Sullivan set; his glammed-out Tebowie implores “This is Jesus Christ to Tim Tebow/Please leave me alone” to the tune of “Space Oddity.”
But none of those impressions compare to his Neil Young. The appeal of Fallon’s After the Goldrush – era Young impersonation, the comedian reveals, lies in its simplicity. “It’s just me and the guitar and the hat and the lighting,” Fallon says. “Neil’s a very quiet guy, very shy. The way it’s lit, you don’t really see much of my face, just the hat and my lips.” Likewise, the performance itself requires a straightforward approach: “No winking, not jokey. Just go out there and sing a beautiful song.” The humor lies in the fact that the beautiful song happens to be the theme from The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, or American Idol audition-round sensation “Pants On The Ground.”
“Oh, it’s great,” Young said in a recent cover story in this magazine, when asked about Fallon’s impersonation of the younger him. “I’d like to see him do me now.” Informed of Young’s take on his impression, Fallon replies, “The challenge is on! Yeah, I’d love to do him now. I’m a giant fan, too. Most of the people I do impressions of, I’m big fans of.” Fallon also holds out hope that the real Neil Young and his ’70s counterpart will one day perform together on Late Night.
Given his propensity for mimicking his musical idols, we have to ask: Does Fallon harbor fantasies of being a bona fide rock star? The comedian points out that he and his Bathroom Wall–era band – which counted Bradford and future Amy Winehouse producer Mark Ronson as members – actually did live that life, albeit briefly, while opening for The Strokes and The Mooney Suzuki for a week’s worth of shows in 1992. “We had a tour bus and everything,” he says. “Living the dream.”
But really, he would much rather be Jimmy Fallon, late-night television talk-show host and comedic chameleon. “For a second, you pretend that you are Bowie – for just a second, then you come back to reality,” Fallon says. “It’s almost better in a way. I don’t have to go out on tour for two years and not see my wife. I can be Bowie tonight, I can be Neil Young tomorrow, I can be Bob Dylan next Wednesday, and I can rap with Justin Timberlake on Thursday. And I don’t have to leave New York.” Besides, who needs Wembley Stadium when you can headline the Wolf Room any night of the week?