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"The way I look at that is I am learning to be funny on Saturday Night Live," Fallon says from a hotel room in Los Angeles, where the night before he performed some standup commingled with Pink Floyd and Woody Guthrie covers. "I'm working with, I think, the funniest people in America, so why go do [comedies] when you have time off? Why don't you learn how to act? I wanna work with good directors, people that have guts and faith in me to teach me how to act, so I work with Tom Hanks and Cameron Crowe and Woody Allen -- because they have faith in me, and I learn from them. Now, it's another key. I can go into two rooms, so when one party dies out, I can go to the other one."
He laughs, which is something Fallon does often in conversation. Sometimes it's a giggle, barely audible. More often, it's a chuckle that rolls into a high-pitched rumble.
"I never did this for money; I never will do it for money." He turns serious for a moment. "I did it for the love of it, and that's why I'm still doing it now. The way my record deal's set up, it's so shady, I'm not gonna get anything from this, so it's like I'm promoting it because I'm proud of it. I'm not gonna make any cash off this at all. It's a comedy record. But how cool is that? That's the way I look at everything. I just hate wasting people's time."
That Fallon long resisted Michaels' advances to fill the slot vacated by Quinn is enormously ironic, given that working on SNLis quite literally the realization of Fallon's lifelong dream. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, in September 1974, exactly a year before SNLdebuted, and grew up memorizing old tapes of the show his parents made for him and his sister. He idolized the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players and harbored ambitions, even as a child, to one day work on the show. After winning a local talent contest, he would even quit college in Albany, New York, to move to Los Angeles, where the comedy-club circuit promised an education better suited to one pursuing a life on a series devoted to sketch comedy. It's only fitting that Fallon would wind up on Saturday Night Liveas a featured player during the 1998-99 season after impressing Michaels with his impersonation of ex-SNLcast member Adam Sandler.
Unlike most new cast members who languish for a season in the shadows, Fallon garnered attention almost immediately -- by his fourth show, in fact. It was October 24, 1998, and Ben Stiller was hosting. Stiller was to slip into his signature impression -- Tom Cruise, which he'd been perfecting for almost a decade on MTV and his own short-lived Fox series -- for a Celebrity Jeopardy sketch. Fallon wanted to do Sandler, but several of the show's writers felt it wasn't appropriate: Sandler didn't have a movie coming out, he hadn't been gone from the show that long, he still had friends at SNL, you name it. Stiller pushed for it, Fallon says: "He really stuck up for me." About half an hour later, on "Weekend Update," Fallon performed a handful of Halloween carols as various rock stars (as Alanis Morrisette: "Thank you, Mike 'n' Ike/Thank you, candy corn/Thank you, Smarties"). He was instantly pegged as the next Sandler.
"And I thought, 'That's cool. I love Adam Sandler. I don't mind getting compared to him,'" Fallon says. "Then I did a bunch of impressions, and then people said, 'Oh, he's the next Dana Carvey. He's trying to be Dana Carvey.' And I thought, 'That's cool. I love Dana Carvey. I always wanted to be like Dana Carvey. That's great.' Then I did something else with an accent, and they all go, 'Oh my God, he's doing Mike Myers. Why's he doing that Mike Myers character?' So now I'm doing 'Weekend Update,' and they're saying... well, I don't know what they're saying. But I'm waiting for the next comparison. You just go down the line getting compared till, eventually..."
Till, eventually, the impersonator becomes the impersonated?
"Yeah," Fallon says. "Lorne Michaels told me this story. It's a classic about an actor named Sam Levine. Lorne said there are four stages of acting. The first is, 'Who is Sam Levine?' Then it's, 'Get me Sam Levine!' Then it's, 'Get me a young Sam Levine!' Then it's, 'Who is Sam Levin?'" Fallon cracks up. "I always remember that. That's one of the funniest, coolest things I ever heard."
This, perhaps, is Fallon's most crucial period: a moment of ascension, yes, but also one of transition. When SNLreturns in October, it will do so without Fallon's friend and foil Will Ferrell; the audience surely wonders whether it can withstand the departure of its Most Valuable President. Fallon is under contract for two more years and wonders how much longer he can withstand the grind. There is a burgeoning film career to consider, and he's "definitely working on a script," suggesting he's aware of the inevitable need to move on.