participatory experiences, gen y, and jimmy fallon

This is the 3rd post in a series on Jimmy Fallon’s Millennial methods. See all of ’em here.

One of the clearest, most obvious (jarring?) surprises about Jimmy Fallon’s version of Late Night is his use of active “guest experiences.”

From the first night, in which he had Robert DeNiro dressed up like an astronaut for a goofy little skit, Fallon stands out in this one aspect perhaps more than any other. While his fellow late night talkers certainly venture “supra-interview” with guests on occasion (such as in Conan’s “In the Year 2000” recurring piece), it’s a rare treat – not the modus operandi.

But with Jimmy Fallon, it’s clearly the M.O., and the guests are surprisingly cooperative. Jimmy playing Tiger Woods in Wii Golf on the streets of NYC, Drew Barrymore licking a bowling ball for $10, Cameron Diaz snuggling with 48 bunnies in a hammock to set a world record, Jimmy competing with Serena Williams (and Betty White) in beer pong… The list of surprising “celebrexperiences” goes on and on through Fallon’s four months.

And that’s not all! The studio audience participates, too, at a new – and more genuine – level. Letterman’s “Stupid Pet [or Human] Tricks” is participation by “normal people” – but it’s tightly-controlled, prepared participation. Meanwhile, Dave’s into-the-audience excursions (like Conan’s or Jay’s) really just use audience members as props for written jokes. Fallon, meanwhile, makes use of audience members in all sorts of ways – sometimes as “props,” certainly, but plenty of times as true “participants” in goofy games or semi-sketches. And it’s telling that they often come right on stage to “star” in this way.

This is all another way Fallon’s approach is textbook when it comes to reaching a Millennial audience: it’s full of participatory experience. (In one rerun I saw last week, ridiculous activities involving the whole audience were indeed aptly titled, “Shared Experiences.”)

A single segment of the new Late Night might turn out to be “just an interview,” sure. But we never really know what’s coming, and there’s a good chance by the time the hour is up that we home viewers have vicariously enjoyed a good romp, a happy contest, or some other sort of larger-than-interview experience.

And that’s one important note: I don’t know that the home audience has to be participating to enjoy the “participatory experience” factor. (You wouldn’t think watching a “Shared Experience” would be enjoyable, but it kinda was.) And there are plenty of chances for true home participation, too, through web content and Twittering and probably other things I haven’t noticed yet.

Troy Patterson of Slate summed it up nicely after only Fallon’s first episode:

Evidence suggests that Late Night With Jimmy Fallon is not a normal talk show—or even an abnormal talk show in the self-ironic tradition Letterman pioneered—but a mutant multimedia experience, part chatfest and part reality show. It is an R&D attempt to reinvent the format for the way we live now (as perceived by a network generally agreed to have no idea what it is doing but—anything’s possible—may even be on to something). This involves hyperactive interactivity and abundant oversharing.

(That “abundant oversharing” is part of what I wrote about last time: Fallon’s use of authenticity.)

So this is another way Late Night with Jimmy Fallon offers us tips on ministry to Millennials. This doesn’t mean (necessarily) that last decade’s youth group games are next decade’s church service experiences. But if we want to reflect our audience and connect with our audience, creating “participatory experiences” (involving them or us) is one available way. Some of these experiences will be fellowshippy, some will be learning moments. All can be memorable.

And if you need ideas for this, just watch a little Late Night. (You won’t have to watch for long.)

For the other posts about Gen Y and Jimmy Fallon, click here.

To see some of Late Night’s participatory experiences involving the studio audience, there’s actually a helpful list at Wikipedia.

And obviously, I’m not condoning beer pong. C’mon.


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  1. Hi there!

    I’ve really been enjoying these posts as I’m one of the people who created Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and think you’ve touched upon something we’ve been doing very much on purpose and somethings we’ve done entirely by accident.

    We are definitely thinking about the Millennial audience as we make this show – they are huge and only getting bigger. All of your points are spot on and we definitely fit into that world.

    However, one thing that stood head and shoulders above everything that we wanted to do with the show from the beginning was build a comedy/talk show that wasn’t based entirely on being nasty. Jimmy, myself and my boss our showrunner, from the beginning wanted the show to feel positive and a kind of place where people felt like they were laughing with others rather than at them. That idea seems to fit nicely into Millennials ideals as well.

    Keeps these posts up! They’re really fascinating and I hope useful to the other ministers you write to!

    Also, if you’re in NYC and want to see the show, please drop me a line.


    Gavin Purcell

  2. Thanks a whole bunch, Gavin. It’s good to know I’m on the right track.

    As far as building a positive show, it seems to me you’ve nailed it! That’s definitely something I’ve personally noticed – the optimism and non-snarkiness. Hooray for having that as an aim – I’m impressed.

    Thanks for your encouragement. Hopefully I’ll get to see the show in person sooner rather than later. Hope you’re enjoying the week “off.”

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