The Late Night funnyman tells us all about his geeky past and why Zuckerberg owes him $400 million.
*Illustration by DKNG Studios
Late Night was the first show to make gaming and social media integral elements, but even back when you were on Saturday Night Live, you always seemed connected to tech stuff.
Yeah, I was one of the first cast members to say we ought to embrace geek culture and technology, whether it was playing the IT guy or doing “Jarret’s Room,” which was basically a Wayne’s World rip-off with a Webcam. Back then I remember people saying, “Do kids really do this?” I’m like, “Yeah! There are people doing Web shows from their dorm rooms all over the country!”
So that was all a part of your world?
I was a computer science major in college, and my dad worked at IBM, so I grew up in a computer family, but I wasn’t a total geek. I was friends with everyone: the burnouts, the jocks, the geeks. I think that’s natural for a comedian: You’re so desperate for everyone to like you that you become friends with everybody.
Are you a gadget freak?
Oh, yeah. When I was on SNL, I was rocking the Motorola clamshell. I saved up money for a Palm Pilot and was like, “You guys, this is the future! We’ll all be drawing letters!” Now I use an iPad, I have a Kindle, I have a Nintendo 3DS to keep my mind sharp. But the iPod was the single most important invention of my life. It blew my mind. I put all my CDs on my computer and gave them to my sister. That just changed everything.
You took a pretty interesting approach to relaunching Late Night.
Lorne Michaels, our executive producer, has always been ahead of the curve, so when we started, he was like, “You should start the show online and grow from there,” because we didn’t have a studio yet. So I just started filming these little Webisodes and tweeting them. We knew when we first started we wanted to involve the Internet and social media as much as possible. And early on it was a fun way to get feedback immediately and for the audience to get to know me, and vice versa, as much as possible. Because people were like, “Oh, I know Jimmy Fallon; he’s the dude who laughs at himself on SNL.”
What kind of effect has technology had on late-night TV shows?
Back in the day, as a viewer you used to have an hour with a talk show host every night. But with social media now, you can practically live with them if you want to. Twitter was just starting when we launched the show; we were actually on it before we even had the show. Other late-night shows were making fun of it, and I was like, “Trust me, this thing is going to be here for a while.” Back then I would look and see that we had 30 followers, and that meant 30 more people were watching the show—that would get me seriously excited! Now it’s four years later, and we have 6.7 million followers. Our show is very modular, so we can break it down with, say, a three-minute monologue, then a three-minute comedy sketch or an interview or a musical performance. So you don’t have to watch the whole hour like you did when Johnny Carson was around. It’s changing everything.
You seem to have mastered the art of the viral video. What’s the secret?
You never really know what’s going to go viral, so you just try and do stuff that the audience hasn’t seen before, like President Obama slow- jamming the news or Tom Hanks reading slam poetry about Full House. One thing we try to do is, if we think something could go viral, we’ll put it up on YouTube immediately, before the show even airs. Like when Justin Timberlake and I did “The History of Rap.” I assumed that would be a big thing. I remember getting a call from Justin after it aired, saying, “You’re on the cover of a French newspaper.” And I go, “You’re kidding. They know who I am in France?” And he goes, “No, they know who I am. I’m Justin Timberlake.”
Given that you’ve been into this tech world for so long, have you been able to cash in at all?
We did an episode of “Jarret’s Room” with Seann William Scott back in 2001, which was about the freshman facebook and making fun of all the new students. And this was before Facebook even existed! So I need to hook up with the Winklevoss twins and get some of that Zuckerberg money.