Jimmy Fallon and ‘Tonight Show’ Team Detail Wildest Set Designs and Which Guests Are Always Down — From Keegan Michael-Key to Cher

When late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon has an idea for a sketch, there are twopeople he can trust to bring it to life “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” production designers Kelly Hanson and Heather Wolensky

Published Time: 19.06.2024 - 23:31:33 Modified Time: 19.06.2024 - 23:31:33

When late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon has an idea for a sketch, there are twopeople he can trust to bring it to life: “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” production designers Kelly Hanson and Heather Wolensky.

Whether it’s a “Miami Vice” cop spoof, a Kentucky Derby sketch or having celebrities such as Mick Jagger or Cher in a deep freezer to share some secrets, Hanson and Wolensky help push things along. It’s something they’ve mastered for the past 10 years. “You’ll bring up a silly idea, and they’ll go, ‘Yeah, and we’ll give you sketches and build around it,’” Fallon explains.

And no sketch is too absurd for Fallon, who encourages creativity by welcoming all ideas. “There’s never a bad idea in our office,” he says. “Anything is possible. If you want a talk show on a sizzling steak, they’ll build a set that looks like you’re sitting on a sizzling steak.”

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Hanson and Wolensky have done it all over the years, with sets involving puppets, moving wallsand secret entrances. Fallon is very involved in the process, with a keen attention to detail. The audience experience is what matters most to Fallon, and that means doing things like turning the sets around during commercial breaks to give those in the studio a look.

It’s important that things move quickly and efficiently, and the audience is not sitting there waiting,” says Hanson.

Despite limited timelines, the team works closely together to ensure the highest level of artistry is delivered every time.

The Kentucky Derby sketch was a last-minute idea. Fallon wanted a place at a starting gate to hold the giant, over-the-top hats traditionally worn at the race — and it would appear that the hats were moving.In the end, an audience member would win the chapeau.

To the human eye, it would look robotic and expensive, but “it’s a human being pushing it,” Fallon says. “There are all sorts of showbusiness tricks that make things look better quality, and they know those tricks and they pull it off.”

Sketch renderings go a long way during pre-production for the design team because it helps everyone get on the same page about what a set will, ultimately, look like. Hanson and Wolensky were able to pull off the Kentucky Derby set because Fallon drew a simple picture.

“It was a series of gates. He wanted these cabinets, and each day one of the hats come out of it. I thought, ‘Does he realize how huge that’s going to be?’ These hats are three feet wide, so the cabinets needed to be 15 feet wide,” Hanson says. “I was nervous because I thought he’d think it was way too big — but he loved it.”

The “Freezer Secrets” set is another example of the team working together to bring the host’s visions to life. They needed to tell the story that Fallon and his guest were in a freezer, so Hanson and Wolensky brought in the special effects department to add water vapor to make the set look cold.

The props team was also brought in to stack the shelves. “Every single jar has a printed graphic inside it, to make it look real,” says Hanson. “Those shelves are perfectly dressed.”

Wolensky also handles all aspects of production design when it. comes to Fallon stepping -

outside of the studio. Like the “Cool Bartenders” sketch with Keegan-Michael Key, for example. Once she had the brief, she looked into bars around the Rockefeller Center area, where the show films. “We never really get a lot of time with celebrities. The further they have to travel, the less time we have toshoot,” says Wolensky.

In her scouting for the ideal location, it was less about the look of the bar since transforming a set wasn’t a factor. “It was more about what would work spatially for our shots and cameras,” she explains.A bar at 30 Rock, Smith & Mills, checked all the boxes.

“What doesn’t show is how much work we did,” Wolensky says. “We were there at five in the morning. One wall is all windows that we covered to look like wood paneling. The bar is all mirrored, so we had to cover all the mirrors. All the artwork was covered for clearance issues.”

Her team also brought in lighting to get the mood just right and décor to fit the sketch, which was supposed to be in a super hip bar. A cocktail stylist was then brought in who made dozens of cocktails, including blue margaritas.

While the job is fun, there are challenges along the way — the biggest being that the show is notfilmed on a soundstage, but as Hanson points out, “we shoot in a skyscraper.”

That means anything she and the production design team create and build is always done with the building’s layout in mind. The individual pieces need to fit in the tiny elevators, be maneuvered through the hallways, go through office-building-sized doors and then assembled. “All our stuff needs to fit in the small room backstage, and we have 12-foot-by-8-foot doors that everything has to roll through and roll back out,” Hanson says.

In the end, what do celebrities think of “Freezer Secrets” and other sets that they might be thrown into? Guests are always up for it, and it all comes down to trust. Fallon says, “They know we’ll do a great job. We’ll build the best sets and make the production as easy as possible.”

When Fallon pitched “Freezer Secrets,” Cher didn’t bat an eye.“Cher is fantastic to pitch,” he says. “She knows the business. She’s done it perfectly for years. I’ll pitch her an idea and it’s silly stuff, and she was immediately game. She’s like, ‘I love it. I want to do it.’” He adds, “She had so much fun doing it that shewants to come back.”

Fallon’s door is always open for any celebrity who wants to sit on a sizzling steak, share secrets in a freezer or whatever idea he dreams up next.

“I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and record them on my iPhone,” he teases. “Me and Will Ferrell wearing jean shorts. I’m singing, ‘I’ve got my jorts.’ Keegan-Michael Key and Fallon get in the proper spirit during the “Cool Bartenders” sketch. It’s not an idea now, but it might be.”

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