HOST EXTRAORDINAIRE: Jimmy with Robert De Niro on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon
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Jimmy’s inexperience and discomfort were palpable on the first episode of Late Night. “We didn’t have air conditioning ready to go in the studio yet, and with all the lights and all the people in there, I forgot how hot it was going to get,” he says. “I’m not a scientist; I was just learning as I was going, dripping sweat.”

Rather than write him off, though, viewers and critics rooted for him — a likable guy who enjoys having fun.

“With De Niro, I was so nervous because he was the first ever, and he’s not known for talking so much — even in real life, he just doesn’t,” Jimmy says of his first Late Night episode. “I wanted him to be my first guest because he’s a superstar, he’s one of the best actors of our lifetime, he’s a New Yorker, and he had nothing to sell. He just did it as a favor to me. It was the coolest thing ever.”

Since then, despite the proliferation of talk shows, competition to book guests and some hosts refusing to book a celebrity who’s already been on another show, Jimmy says, “It’s not a problem for us. We’ve had the president of the United States on the show, I’ve danced with the first lady, I had Tom Cruise cracking eggs on his head, I had a dance-off with Cameron Diaz. I don’t care if they do any other show, as long as they want to have fun.”

Like De Niro, Joaquin Phoenix, whom Jimmy interviewed toward the end of his Late Night run, isn’t known to be a man of many words. Yet somehow Jimmy brought Joaquin from quiet to uncharacteristically chatty rather quickly.

“It was a little weird for me to interview him because I know he doesn’t like to do talk shows,” Jimmy admits. “I think after five years, you learn everyone just wants to have a good time, no matter who it is, if they like to talk or not. I feel like a lot of people aren’t that comfortable being themselves; they’re more comfortable acting and being characters. So the advantage I have is I can improvise or do things like I did on SNL [Saturday Night Live] where we pretend and goof off. So we just started improvising ­and pretending we were breaking up with each other, and he was amazing. I love him. It was one of those fun moments you don’t plan. It was unwritten, and that was the greatest.”

Jimmy recalls what Ellen DeGeneres once told him when he went to her for advice: “She said don’t worry about all these written pieces and all the things you think will be genius. You do one little thing like trip or something, and that’s all people will remember. She said don’t stress that the writing’s got to be the best because people like the spontaneous stuff, and you’ll find that coming out more. And she was right.”