Jimmy Fallon Reveals How 9/11 and David Letterman Inspired Him to Broadcast From Home During the Coronavirus Pandemic

“Tonight Show” host also delivers a variety of celebrity impressions and says what he’d do differently if he could return to “SNL”

April 1, 2020

Jimmy Fallon has built an incredible career for himself by telling jokes and being silly on television, but making people laugh is a job he takes seriously, especially as a deadly pandemic ravages the globe. He joined the Stern Show on Wednesday morning and revealed what motivated him to broadcast “The Tonight Show” from his home and why he believes it’s important to keep the late-night tradition alive during a time of crisis.

“I Zoomed all my producers, I go, ‘What’s the plan? … I’ve gotta do something. I’m going to put on a show,’” Jimmy told Howard. “I figured everyone has me in their household every night—why not bring them into my home and see what we do? I don’t know if it’s funny. I don’t know what it is yet, but it’s something.”

By broadcasting during these perilous times, Fallon hopes to do for others what late-night legend David Letterman did for him in the wake of a different national tragedy.

“When I was on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and 9/11 happened it was just a bizarre time,” Jimmy said. “It was just so weird and I kind of feel that same weirdness now.”

Over 20 years have passed since those broadcasts, but Jimmy still recalls what Letterman said when he went on the air: “I remember looking to the late-night guys to see what their take is on all of it and I remember watching Letterman and he was behind his desk … and he said that—I’m paraphrasing—‘There’s only one requirement in any of us and that is to be courageous.’ He’s like, ‘Courage defines all human behavior,’ and he said, ‘I’ve been around long enough and I think that pretending to be courageous is just as good as the real thing.’”

Letterman’s quote has stuck with him all these years but it was actually Jimmy’s wife Nancy Juvonen who reminded him of it as the coronavirus pandemic began altering the late-night landscape.

Some of the biggest names on TV and radio are finally returning from their coronavirus-induced shutdowns, including recent Stern Show guests Jimmy Kimmel and Andy Cohen as well as Howard himself. As all of them have attested, broadcasting from home isn’t always easy. Fallon told Howard it’s been a challenge for him, too, especially considering schools are closed which means he and Nancy—like so many parents across the country—are now also responsible for homeschooling their children.

“It’s a lot. I mean, thank god for Nancy. Homeschooling is just … I don’t know Spanish! I’m learning as they’re learning,” Jimmy admitted. “It’s a lot of change really quick.”

“The whole day is packed. I feel like I’ve never worked this hard in my life,” he added.

In addition to delivering lesson plans at home, parents must also now grapple with teaching their kids about the deadly pandemic sweeping the globe. Howard wondered how Jimmy and his wife handled explaining the situation to their two young daughters.

“I said, ‘You just gotta keep washing your hands and wash them for as long as you can and, you know, don’t touch your face because this is a virus that’s gonna spread and no one wants to get sick,’” Jimmy said, adding that he also performed a science experiment for them to demonstrate how effective soap can be as a viral deterrent.

“How are you dealing with social distancing?” Howard wondered. “You’re like the most social guy I know.”

As much as he may miss other people, Jimmy believes he’s lucky because he and his wife continue to enjoy each other’s company. “We were talking about this the other day and we go, ‘I think we chose well. We like each other,’” he said.

Jimmy didn’t claim to have all the COVID-19 answers, but he was eager to share a message of hope with Howard and his listeners. “We all can get through this. It’s going to be a long time. We don’t know when it’s going to end but if we get each other’s back and be kind and good to each other we’ll get through it and we’ll come out of this stronger,” he said.

“Saturday Night Live”

Before taking over as host for NBC’s flagship late-night talk show, Jimmy famously starred on the network’s long-running sketch-comedy series “Saturday Night Live.”

In addition to co-anchoring “Weekend Update” with Tina Fey, Jimmy was one of the show’s most well-known cast members. Howard fondly recalled his guest’s wide-ranging arsenal of celebrity impersonations but couldn’t understand why the show didn’t utilize them more often. “I don’t think they had you do a lot of impressions on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ It’s weird,” Howard said.

Jimmy blamed much of it on him being young. “I was 23 when I got ‘SNL,’ so what I wanted to do was only do a character once and then never do it again,” he said.

“Why?” Howard wondered.

“Because—I don’t know—I was just dumb. But it was a mistake. I should’ve done it a bunch of times,” Jimmy responded, adding, “I never thought of them as recurring characters.”

To this day, Jimmy’s Adam Sandler impression remains one of his most iconic. The two never starred on “SNL” at the same time, though Fallon dusted it off to great effect last May when Adam returned as the show’s host. On Wednesday, he told Howard it was that very impression which won “SNL” boss Lorne Michaels over during his audition and ultimately earned him a spot on the show.

“I did him before anyone was doing Sandler,” Jimmy said. “He’d just left the show, so when I did his impression Lorne started laughing.”

Despite the fact Lorne loved his impression, Jimmy said getting it on the aired proved quite difficult. For starters, it took some insistence from one of the guest hosts during Fallon’s freshman season, Ben Stiller.

“He came onto host and he goes, ‘You gotta have this kid do Adam Sandler. This new guy. He does a great Sandler,” Jimmy said. He said Lorne was resistant at first but Stiller kept pushing. “Ben’s like, ‘No, let’s do it now,’” Jimmy recalled.

Even after getting the green light from Lorne, he still needed one more person to sign off on his impression: Adam Sandler himself. As Jimmy described it, he would always call former cast members before parodying them on the show, but before Sandler gave him the okay he made Jimmy do a test run over the phone.

“We called Sandler and he goes, ‘Alright, do it for me,’” Jimmy said, explaining that he obliged and quickly won him over. “He goes ‘Alright, that’s pretty good. You can do it … Good luck, kid.’”

The Sandler impression eventually made it to air as part of a successful “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketch, but Jimmy could only recall returning to that well one other time. Howard remained adamant “SNL” could’ve better utilized Jimmy’s repertoire of impressions.

Fallon agreed. “I gotta go back and be a cast member again,” he laughed.

Lasting Impressions

Despite leaving “SNL” over 15 years ago, Jimmy’s celebrity impressions remain as spot-on as ever. He dusted a few off for Howard on Wednesday, including favorites like Jerry Seinfeld, Bruce Springsteen, Chris Rock, Robin Williams, John Travolta, Al Pacino, and even Pee-Wee Herman.

Howard and Jimmy also tackled the topic of music several times during the interview. Jimmy shared his thoughts on the greatest song ever written (the Beatles’ “Hey Jude”), the greatest guitarist who ever lived (Jimi Hendrix), the greatest guitar riff ever strummed (Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine”), and the first concert he was excited to attend (“Weird Al” Yankovic). He and Howard also discussed which celebrities they’d rather feed to sharks if forced to pick between two (Tina Fey or Amy Poehler? Bruce Springsteen or Billy Joel?) and then Howard had him try to guess which one-hit wonder musicians were behind classic songs like “Mambo No. 5” and “Ride Captain Ride.”

“Have you ever tried to write a legitimate song?” Howard asked Jimmy at one point.

“I think I did once in high school. It was terrible,” he responded. “It was pretty embarrassing.”

Though Jimmy may never get “Spirit in the Sky”-sized royalty checks for the tune he crafted as a teenager, the King of All Media was quick to point out the world has certainly benefitted from the late-night host’s tireless efforts as an entertainer.

“Jimmy Fallon what a guy … You poke a fork in him and like gravy the talent just pours out of him,” Howard concluded. “I appreciate you doing the show … You bring cheer to people and you cheered me up today.”

“The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” airs weeknights on NBC at 11:35 p.m. ET.