Jimmy Fallon is likely the most famous person to come from Saugerties. He wasn’t born here, and he wasn’t famous until long after he left here, but when he takes over The Tonight Show next week, Fallon brings with him a comedic flair forged in Saugerties.
Fallon did more than just replace Jay Leno, a move likely to stick longer than Conan O’Brien’s ill-fated six-month tenure in 2009, the last time NBC gave its lantern-jawed car enthusiast the heave-ho. He also brought The Tonight Show back to New York City, its home from 1954 until Johnny Carson moved it to Burbank, California a decade into his 30-year run as its host in 1972.
Few could have imagined it in 2008, when Fallon was officially named as O’Brien’s replacement on Late Night. Fallon became something of a household name during his time on Saturday Night Live, which he joined as a featured player for the 1998-99 season, becoming a full cast member the following year. He joined Tina Fey as co-anchor of Weekend Update in 2000, though he left the show four years later to pursue a film career. And then came Late Night, and with it a hue-and-cry on social media from people who were either hoping for someone else or just wanted a chance to unload on their blogs. And Fallon just did his thing; he did it well, he surrounded himself with good people, got really comfortable behind the desk, and proved the naysayers wrong. Which is why the Tonight Show move didn’t come as such a shock. Everyone already knows Fallon is up for the challenge.
Fallon has never made a secret of his history, of his connection to Saugerties. It surfaces in interviews, and it stops him in his tracks when anyone brings it up. That’s what happened when I attended a taping of Late Night a couple of years ago. As Fallon made his way through the crowd at the end of the show, handing out high-fives like an NBA All-Star, I said, “Hey, Saugerties!” He stopped, momentarily, said, “Alright!” and kept moving. He stayed professional and in the moment, but paused just enough to let it sink in.
The same thing happened to my stepsister, Amanda Andreassen Rueby, earlier this month. She and her husband Thomas attended a taping of The Tonight Show in Burbank and Fallon was one of the guests. She had the chance to talk to Fallon, mentioned Saugerties and it was an instant connection.
Fallon grew up in Saugerties, attending St. Mary of the Snow, and graduating from Saugerties High in 1992. Dan Carey was a friend of Fallon’s way back when, and while few could have predicted this particular career trajectory, those who knew him growing up say there were signs.
“He lived it, even as a kid,” Carey said. “He was always mimicking what he’d seen before. He’d walk around with an English accent, not just for an hour, but for like three days.”
Fallon’s first standup experience was local as well, an impression contest at Bananas Comedy Club in Poughkeepsie he won thanks to a great deal of encouragement from his mother, Gloria. That act included a troll doll Fallon was given with his graduation cap at Saugerties High; troll dolls became a running gag between Fallon and his Saugerties friends.
“His weeks off (from Saturday Night Live) he’d spend at his mom’s house, and we’d hang out,” said Carey. “One day we were hanging out, and he pulled out this troll doll, which was part of his standup comedy. And we were drinking and making fun of it. And a week or two later (January 16, 1999), James Van Der Beek was the host, and he was playing the piano in a sketch and people were heckling him, and it was word-for-word what we were doing to the troll doll. And when I saw Jimmy at (mutual friend) Sean Quinlan’s wedding, I said, ‘Hey, that skit!’ and he said, ‘Yeah, that was our conversation.’”
Carey was there with a group of friends the night Fallon auditioned for Saturday Night Live, which he’d flown back to New York for from his then-home in Los Angeles. Fallon reportedly made the famously stone-faced Lorne Michaels laugh during the audition, which featured a series of impressions including Jerry Seinfeld and Adam Sandler.
“He was pretty pumped when he came to the bar across the street afterwards,” Carey said.
No word yet as to whether Fallon’s ascent to the top of late-night television will mean Saugerties will make any more of its connection to him. Are we far away from a “Hometown of Jimmy Fallon” shingle under the Welcome to Saugerties sign? It would certainly be fitting, as Fallon, more than any other host, exudes the friendliness Saugerties prides itself on.
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon begins broadcasting from NBC’s Studio B on Monday, February 17 with guests Will Smith and U2.