Jimmy Fallon (‘The Tonight Show’) on being ‘changed’ by Puerto Rico and why he loves awards shows [Complete Interview Transcript]

Jimmy Fallon had another exciting year hosting “The Tonight Show” this season. The late-night host flew out to Puerto Rico for a special episode on top of funny bits with major celebrities. Fallon is now a six-time Emmy winner, taking home trophies for the interactive version of “The Tonight Show” and for guest hosting “Saturday Night Live.”

Fallon recently sat down with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum to chat about his busy year at the show, how Puerto Rico changed him, and why he loves award shows. Watch the exclusive chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Jimmy, just over the last two weeks alone I’ve seen your virtual reality with Brie Larson, I’ve seen you with the cups with Ryan Reynolds.

Jimmy Fallon: We had the busiest two weeks. We’ve had a great year on “The Tonight Show” but that one week, I know what you’re talking about, we had the Avengers singing “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” we got Billy Joel’s permission, did all of that and got every Avenger to sing that bit and then at the end it turned into a mosaic of Stan Lee and said, “The fire will still burn on and on. It will always burn on.” We were really proud. It was a lot of work for us and we were so proud of that. That same night we had these two new writers that are on the show now from Yale, Rebecca Shaw and Ben Kronengold. They wrote this sketch of me doing Bernie Sanders rapping to “Old Town Road” ‘cause CNN was doing five town halls ‘cause everyone’s running for president right now. They did five town halls in one night so I was Bernie Sanders rapping, “I’m gonna talk to the people in the old town hall. I’m gonna tell them that we don’t want no wall.” I had prosthetics on for Bernie and Drake was rapping with me and the Roots were playing, that was fun. That got a lot of attention as well. Then we did a beat battle with Brie Larson, then I did a hip-hop dance class with A-Rod that people were talking about and then Paul Rudd came into town.

GD: Anytime you and Paul Rudd are together.

JF: Dude, this guy is a perfectionist and he’s unbelievable. He was loopy. He just got back from Beijing or something so he really no idea of where he was. He’s like, “I’m sorry, I’m a little out of it,” and I’m like, “Don’t worry about it. Just put on this wig. We’re gonna have fun.” And then we spent the next three hours doing a shot-for-shot remake of the Dead or Alive video “You Spin Me Round.” I hope we did it justice.

GD: Did you hear from that band at all?

JF: They’re actually dead.

GD: Both of them?

JF: Yeah, they are. Dead or Alive, they’re actually dead. We wanted to honor them anyway but that’s a classic song. Shot for shot, if you see it, we worked hard on that one. That got a lot of attention thanks to Paul but we were in there trying to harmonize and trying to make it perfect and if that wasn’t enough for that week, we did “Two Stings on the Moon,” which was an idea we’ve had years ago that our writer Arthur Meyer wrote and Colin Elzie, and they sent it to Sting and it was more like, “Two Stings to gather on the moon,” something like that. We never heard back. And then Sting’s publicist called us and said, “Sting is okay with it. He wants to rewrite it. Is that okay?” I said, “What? Sting wants to write a sketch? Yeah, of course. What are you talking about? That’s amazing.” So Arthur’s freaking out, like, “Sting’s rewriting my bit!” So then we hear back the next day from Sting, I got a scratch track. He’s like, “Two Stings on the moon.” I’m like, “‘Walking on the Moon’? You’re doing a parody of your song? The Police? What is going on?” We’re all so excited and freaking out like “Oh my gosh.” In my head in the sketch we wrote that we’re on the moon, we’re dressed as astronauts. I go, “Would Sting wanna wear the harness and go up?” And they go, “Let’s ask.” And Arthur got the best text back from his publicist that said, “Sting wants to fly.” It was pretty awesome. It was all one week and it was like, “Hey guys, we’re doing a variety show.”

GD: This week’s been amazing. The one I watched yesterday, which was your Thursday, Ryan Reynolds and you doing a spit-takes.

JF: You never know what game or what bit is going to work but you think back to the originators of “The Tonight Show,” Steve Allen.

GD: He would do anything.

JF: He was the first guy to do, before [David] Letterman was sitting in a bowl pretending he’s a banana split, Steve Allen was doing that stuff. I heard a great story from Steve Allen’s grandson. Steve Allen would do anything to just do a stunt. It’s a variety show and the last thing, I don’t know if you ever heard this story, they tried to launch him out of a cannon. They tried to launch Steve Allen out of a cannon over the bushes and land in some celebrity’s pool. He said, “Yeah, great, let’s do it.” He’s in this outfit and they’ve got a cannon, they put a sack of potatoes in there or something in there to practice it and the thing went right into a brick wall and he goes, “I’m out. What am I doing? Why was I thinking I was actually gonna do this? You were gonna launch me in the air? I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m a talk show host.” I love that that was the last thing. We do all different games. We try to do something different to do something refreshing, not just for our minds and energize the writers and us but also our audience, too. What can you do that’s different besides just a monologue and a talk show? I wanna try to do anything different. We try to switch it up and change it up. We played that game with Ryan Reynolds and he was loopy, too. He was in China for “Detective Pikachu” and there we were playing a game. It was just so silly, but it was fun. It was great and he’s a good sport. Again, that got people talking about the movie, which is our job.

GD: Speaking of different, you did two things this year that I wanna ask you about. One was your trip to Puerto Rico. You and Lin-Manuel Miranda are so good together and that particular trip was funny but it seemed like it touched you.

JF: It really changed me. That’s the most proud I’ve ever been of anything I’ve done in my career because Lin-Manuel came on our show and he was telling us how he was gonna bring Hamilton down to Puerto Rico to remind Puerto Rico that, “Hey, we didn’t forget about you. You are Americans and we need to shine a light on them. They need help rebuilding.” I was so touched by that and I go, “How can he move a Broadway play? You can’t, especially if it’s a hit play. There’s too much money involved, to be honest. It’s impossible to do.”

GD: He had the rights, though.

JF: Yeah but there’s unions and actors that have families. It’s a lot to move a thing but he did it and everyone worked together for the common good and pulled this off and I go, “If they can do that, can’t we do one show from Puerto Rico?” So NBC was cool. They said, “Yeah, sure,” but our staff is probably 200-something people so we can’t afford everybody. We took a skeleton crew of about 30 people, flew to Puerto Rico. We already wrote out Act 1, what we wanna do, we booked Lin-Manuel, obviously, and I got to sing with him and the cast of “Hamilton,” “Story of Tonight,” which is perfect because obviously “The Tonight Show” but it’s like, “We may not live to see our glory but our children will tell our story.” We brought “The Tonight Show” to Puerto Rico, a place that needs help. I can’t even tell you looking in the eyeballs of everyone on that island. They’re so happy but tears of joy and gratitude and people hugging me and going, “Thank you for remembering that we’re here and that we exist.” Oh man, that made me wanna do such a better show. We had Bad Bunny and we had Ozuna and José Feliciano and we went to Old San Juan and we played with a big gang of dancers choreographed down Fortaleza Street and we sang “MIA,” which is Bad Bunny’s hit song and people were just so happy and dancing and colorful. It was like, “Yeah, this is happening. It’s open for business. Puerto Rico is ready to go.” We gave some charity websites that you could donate to. The Hispanic Federation is one of them. But if you don’t money to do that, I understand. Next time you go on vacation, go to Puerto Rico. That is just as good as any donation. Tourism is a lot of their economy and they need to rebuild. Most of the resorts are open and ready to go. I also did a zip-line while I was there. I hate zip-lines. I don’t like it at all. I just was like, “I gotta make good TV. I gotta do this.” I was thinking of Steve Allen.

GD: That was your cannon moment.

JF: It was my cannon moment going, “I’m doing this for Puerto Rico” and hopefully they know that ‘cause I’m afraid of heights and I don’t wanna strap myself to a cable and go 90 miles an hour for two miles. That doesn’t interest me at all. I hated it but I did it and the air was going through and I went with Tarik [Trotter] from the Roots and he loved it. I guess after we aired that special, that zip-line company had to add another line because the demand was quadrupled. So, mission accomplished on that. Even though it’s a small thing, we’re gonna continue to talk about Puerto Rico and raise awareness. They need help rebuilding but man, that was something I’ll never, ever forget. It really changed me. I was just so proud of our show and what we could accomplish.

GD: The other episode I wanna ask you about was your anniversary special, the “Larry Sanders” version. That looked amazing and it was so funny. I bet it took a lot of time to put together.

JF: That was a tricky one to put together. I was talking to my wife about one of my favorite “Larry Sanders” episodes. Carol Burnett was on. It’s a really funny episode, there’s animals, spider with Hank. I was talking to her about that because now that I’m hosting a talk show I can say this, it’s actually almost exactly like that show. It is really well-written and well-done. And my wife said, “Why don’t you just write your own version of that, your own backstage thing?” And I go, “That’s a lot of work but it’s a good idea. Let me pitch it and see if we can do it.” Again, NBC said, “Sure, if you feel like that’s what you wanna do.” Amy Ozols said, “I wanna do it. Let me let this be my project. She locked herself in her office and she typed out a one-hour written behind-the-scenes show of our show, “The Tonight Show.” We had Tina Fey, we booked Ben Stiller, Robert Irwin, who’s our animal expert, but we had to shoot the show twice with a real audience not knowing what the joke is. We didn’t want them acting so we just did this whole bit and me and Tina were kind of fighting and we did actions that we had pre-taped before. They were like, “Whoa.” The audience was a little weird and I messed up some cue cards on purpose. And then afterward I told them, “Here’s what we’re doing. We’re actually friends,” and they were like, “This is so weird.” We did that twice then pre-taped for probably two weeks of different things with everyone’s different schedule to try to get every joke in there. When you get people like Tina Fey and Ben Stiller doing comedy with you.

GD: Nobody plays annoyed better than Ben Stiller.

JF: He’s unbelievable. He didn’t wanna leave. He was dressed as Hashtag the Panda for hours walking up and down our halls and he was hilarious. We also got Robert De Niro to do a cameo, who we love, who was my first guest ever on late night. It’s a little homage to that and then Lorne Michaels did a cameo, which he’s never done on “The Tonight Show.” It’s good because he’s really not a good actor. I was grateful that he did it and he’s my mentor. He’s my guy. He got me to where I am today. I wouldn’t be anywhere without Lorne Michaels believing in me. That was a big swing but I think the best part of that was we didn’t tell anyone that was coming up.

GD: Can you imagine what was going through the audience members’ minds?

JF: I was reading Twitter and going, “Yeah, this is exactly what I wanted! This is exactly what I wanted.” People are going, “Wait, the cameras aren’t off. They’re showing us what’s happening. They’re not cutting away. They’re not going to commercial.” And then they’re seeing me get in an argument with a producer.

GD: I’m glad you explained it, ‘cause can you imagine the conversations going away if you hadn’t?

JF: Some people were like, “I don’t like this. I don’t wanna see Jimmy talk like this. This is weird.” But that’s great. It’s something different and I’ve been wanting to do it forever.

GD: Garry [Shandling] would’ve loved that.

JF: I emailed Judd [Apatow] immediately and I sent him the script and I sent him the rough draft. I go, “Take a look at this when you get a chance.” I think it was around the Academy Awards so he was like, “I’m a little busy, dude.” He goes, “Garry would love this.” Honestly, I thought of the great Garry Shandling who was a friend but also one of the greatest comedians in the world. So if you don’t know who Garry Shandling is or Larry Sanders, they’re worth Googling.

GD: Plus Judd’s got his documentary.

JF: The documentary, that was fantastic.

GD: We caught up him in the Emmy press room last year after they won for that and he was so emotional, his Emmy win coming for that.

JF: Talk about a perfectionist in comedy, it’s Garry Shandling. He was just precise and down to the wire. I’ve seen him at Hermosa Beach at the improv out here in L.A. and he was really one of my idols. I gave him a shoutout once on the show. I said, “Hey Garry, I love you, buddy.” And he sent me an email and he goes, “Don’t ever do that again. That was weird.” I was like, “Is my TV coming to life? This is so weird that he’s talking right to me.” He goes, “don’t do that again.”

GD: Last question, we’re an awards website so I always like to ask about Emmys and such. You got six Emmys yourself, four for interactive and two for guest hosting “SNL” but they’ve all been at the Creative Arts ceremony so you weren’t able to be there, not on the primetime ceremony where you attend every year.

JF: Yeah, I never got a chance to do a speech!

GD: Let me ask about the first one. How did you find out and what did you do?

JF: Winning an Emmy is obviously an amazing thing. Being nominated is an amazing thing. I love award shows. I’ve hosted the Emmys. I’ve hosted many award shows. I love award shows. My mom got me into them as a kid. She used to watch every one. She used to watch the Academy Awards, get dressed up in a gown and do a fake acceptance speech every year. It was really corny but it was funny. So me and my sister and my dad grew up loving award shows. When you first find out that you’re nominated, that’s a big deal. That’s so exciting and everyone hears about it and everyone calls you and is like, “Congratulations! Oh my god!” That is a feeling that is just like, “Wow. That is awesome.” You wanna ride that out forever. You don’t want that to ever end. Once you get to the actual awards it’s like, “Someone’s gonna win. I don’t know if it’s gonna be me.” I’ve never had the experience of being in the crowd when I won. I see it online or someone will call and go, “You won,” and I’ll go, “Cool. That’s great that I won but what I do now?” And they go, “We’ll mail you an award.” I really wanna be able to thank people and really show how grateful I am to be in this business and be able to do what I’m doing and do a variety show and thank all the guys that came before me and girls and people that worked and writers that wrote that never got a chance to see what social media can do and how you can have a sketch live forever. Imagine writing a sketch for weeks or a month and it comes on one night and you don’t see it again. “Did you see my caveman sketch?” They go, “I missed the show last night.” That’s it. You can’t YouTube it. It doesn’t exist.

GD: The year you hosted the Emmys was one of the single greatest Emmy hosting experiences I’ve ever had. That opening with the “Glee” people, it was their first year, divided off into the genres for the first time ever, it was just amazing.

JF: I remembered that year, I go, “I’d love to have Kim Kardashian on the Emmys” and I remember there was pushback. They’re like, “That’s kind of reality.” I go, “You’re wrong. That show is big. It’s gonna be giant. People are gonna talk about these people.” I love the Kardashians. They go, “We got other people.” I go, “Please just put that as a favor to me. I’d love to have Kim on or somebody from the Kardashians” and they did. They caved and they had her on. I’m so happy and I sang with her. Then after that, she put out a song. I just love moments like that where it’s like you don’t know what’s gonna happen with TV, or I don’t even know if you wanna call it TV anymore. It’s getting bigger than that. It’s content. It’s so big and it’s just growing and growing. It’s exciting and you’re in the room with the best of the best and that’s a fun night. It really feels good to see your peers and you go, “You were up ’til 4 in the morning writing that. I know you were.” You go to parties and you all see each other. James Corden or Stephen Colbert and [Jimmy] Kimmel and Conan O’Brien, they do that five nights a week, one hour long.

GD: You all have a bond even if you don’t see each other that often.

JF: You lived it. You can see it in your eyes. You go, “Yeah, you lived it, man. You’ve touched the sun,” or whatever it was. It’s great and it’s so much fun. Everybody in that category, whether it be Sam Bee or John Oliver or Hasan Minhaj, everyone’s good at their bit. There’s room for everybody and everyone’s got their strengths. John Oliver, you don’t wanna see him do a Bernie Sanders impression but I can’t do what he does. So I’m grateful to him and I watch him all the time. Trevor Noah is having a great year and Seth Meyers. I watched him since “Saturday Night Live.” It’s just exciting and it’s fun to see each other but we go to parties and I’m telling you, by the end of the night, in one corner it’s all the talk shows and all the comedians just talking to each other.

GD: There was a “Larry Sanders” like that where four or five of them were backstage at an award show talking.

JF: It’s the truth. It actually happened. I was just at the Time 100 two weeks ago, I’m sitting next to Nancy Pelosi, two tables behind me is Jared Kushner. This really happened. I go, “Wow.” We’re sitting there and maybe 10 minutes later, it’s me, Trevor Noah, Hasan and John Oliver and we’re all together. It’s great. It’s camaraderie and it’s family. We’re very lucky people to be able to do this type of stuff and be able to even talk about awards and nominations. If we ever get nominated, we’re very grateful. If we ever win, I’m even more grateful. “Saturday Night Live” obviously is where I started so to be able to win an Emmy for that, that meant the world to me and I thank the writers and the cast ‘cause that’s really them. I’m getting the award for hosting but they’re in more of the show than I am. It’s great and I look forward to all this stuff, the award season. It’s kind of fun. I know this website gets exciting around this time so you’re very busy. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.

GD: Thank you. Good luck for this year’s Emmys.

JF: Thank you, bud.

More News from GoldDerby