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Chaos, Comedy, and ‘Crying Rooms’: Inside Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Tonight Show’

Sixteen current and former staffers say Fallon’s erratic behavior spoiled their “dream” of working on The Tonight Show

Jimmy Fallon

Todd Owyoung/NBC/Getty Images

It was a particularly tense day on the set of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. The host, known for his warm and congenial presence onscreen, was acting especially dismissive and irritable during production meetings, a former longtime employee tells Rolling Stone. Then he stumbled through rehearsal in front of a studio audience, who typically sit in on rehearsals for the late-night show. Employees who spoke to Rolling Stone about their experiences working on The Tonight Show say it’s common knowledge behind the scenes that there are “good Jimmy days” — where Fallon’s wit and charm and creativity are on full display — and “bad Jimmy days.” This was a “bad Jimmy day,” according to the employee.

They say Fallon seemed to be confused during rehearsal that day in 2017 when he crossed out jokes on the piece of paper he was holding, riffed with the audience for a bit, then quizzically looked back down at the same sheet of paper.

“He couldn’t remember he had just crossed it out himself,” the employee says. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, he [seems] drunk. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. This could be awful — this could be the end of the show right here.’” Another staffer says they too witnessed the incident from a live studio feed inside their office.

According to two current and 14 former employees, The Tonight Show has been a toxic workplace for years — far outside the boundaries of what’s considered normal in the high-pressure world of late-night TV. They say the ugly environment behind the scenes starts at the top with Fallon’s erratic behavior, and has trickled down to its ever-changing leadership teams — nine showrunners in the past nine years — who seemingly don’t know how to say no to Jimmy. Former employees describe The Tonight Show as a tense and “pretty glum atmosphere,” with some alleging they were belittled and intimidated by their bosses, including Fallon himself. Employees describe being afraid of Fallon’s “outbursts” and unexpected, inconsistent behavior. Many of these staffers voiced their concerns through HR complaints, but problems at The Tonight Show persisted.

Seven former employees say their mental health was impacted by their alleged experiences working at The Tonight Show. These staffers say it was commonplace to hear people joking about “wanting to kill themselves,” and that they would refer to guests’ dressing rooms in the office as “crying rooms” because that’s where they would go to let out their emotions when they were upset with their alleged mistreatment.

The former staffers who spoke to Rolling Stone requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation. They worked in a range of positions on the show, from production crew members to office staffers and in the show’s writers’ room. Many of the former staffers say they left the show because of their mental health; some say they were fired from The Tonight Show.

“It’s a bummer because it was my dream job,” one former employee says. “Writing for late night is a lot of people’s dream jobs, and they’re coming into this and it becomes a nightmare very quickly. It’s sad that it’s like that, especially knowing that it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Rolling Stone contacted more than 50 Tonight Show employees, past and present, during the reporting for this story. After reaching out to representatives for Fallon and NBC, Rolling Stone reached out to an additional 30 current and former staffers. While many of them praised Fallon’s immense talent and comedic gifts, not a single one agreed to speak on the record or had  positive things to say about working on The Tonight Show. Nor would any of the program’s nine showrunners since 2014 comment about the program’s namesake on the record – they wouldn’t even give statements of support, as is common in the entertainment industry.

Representatives for Fallon would not comment on the record for this story. After this report published, however, Fallon apologized to staffers in an all-hands Zoom call. “It’s embarrassing and I feel so bad,” Fallon said, according to two people who were on the call. “Sorry if I embarrassed you and your family and friends… I feel so bad I can’t even tell you.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for NBC defended the program — but, notably, did not mention Fallon himself. “We are incredibly proud of The Tonight Show, and providing a respectful working environment is a top priority,” the spokesperson said. “As in any workplace, we have had employees raise issues; those have been investigated and action has been taken where appropriate. As is always the case, we encourage employees who feel they have experienced or observed behavior inconsistent with our policies to report their concerns so that we may address them accordingly.”

Seven former employees say their mental health was impacted — and add it was commonplace to hear people joking about “wanting to kill themselves.”

AFTER WINNING OVER viewers on Saturday Night Live, Fallon cemented his reputation as one of television’s most beloved entertainers when he started hosting NBC’s Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in 2009. Fallon’s goofy, affable, musically gifted, and middle-of-the-road approach to audiences and comedy made him easily likable and appealing to the masses. For those watching at home, Fallon didn’t seem to take himself too seriously; his charisma and talent onscreen brought people joy and made them laugh. It led to an abundance of excitement when it was announced he would take over as host of The Tonight Show from Jay Leno in 2014.

The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon debuted to a staggering 11.3 million viewers. For the duration of its premiere season, the show competed against other late-night shows, averaging between 3 million and 4 million episodic viewers. The show has had no shortage of successes and viral moments. “Slow Jam the News” is a popular segment in which political and media figures like President Obama and Brian Williams join Fallon in breaking down current events while the Roots improvise slow jams, R&B music, and ad-libs. Then there’s “Wheel of Musical Impressions” where Fallon provides singers with prompts and asks them to do their best imitation of other musical artists, including Ariana Grande impersonating Celine Dion singing the Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face.” The video of Grande and Fallon’s impressions has been viewed 169 million times on YouTube.

But behind the scenes, there was a surprising, dramatic, and ugly shift in the working environment, according to three employees who originally worked for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and then followed the team to The Tonight Show. Of course, there was added pressure when the program transitioned — The Tonight Show is one of television’s most storied franchises. These employees also say they felt a change because Michael Shoemaker, who was at the helm of Late Night during Fallon’s run, didn’t move over to The Tonight Show and stuck around to produce Late Night With Seth Meyers.

“The producers felt this pressure, and that translated down to all of their employees. People that worked under them then felt this pressure that if you made one mistake, you were gone and would be easily replaced,” one former employee says. “You have all these NBC pages in the building who are ready, willing, and waiting to take your job.”

Of course, every major television show has its share of pressure and chaos and turnover; daily programs, even more so. But what happened at The Tonight Show was highly unusual in late-night television, employees say. The program has had six different groups of leadership teams in its nine years on TV. In 2014, Josh Lieb started off as showrunner. Mike DiCenzo, Katie Hockmeyer, and Gerard Bradford took over as a trio in 2016. Then Jim Bell had a short stint from 2018 until 2019, followed by Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and Tonight Show veteran Gavin Purcell from 2019 to 2020. Jamie Granet-Bederman and Nedaa Sweiss replaced Purcell in 2020 as co-showrunners until Chris Miller landed the job in March 2022.

“I just don’t think they’ve landed on a leader who can keep it together,” one former staffer says.

And that’s created a chaotic atmosphere among staffers, many of whom have lost faith in senior leadership.

“Nobody told Jimmy, ‘No.’ Everybody walked on eggshells, especially showrunners,” another former employee says. “You never knew which Jimmy we were going to get and when he was going to throw a hissy fit. Look how many showrunners went so quickly. We know they didn’t last long.”

With an ever-changing cast at the top, employees say they had nightmares related to work and were in a constant state of fear. One former employee says they had their first anxiety attack while working at the show and were put on anti-anxiety medication for the first time. Another employee says they felt physical ramifications of their declining mental health, like their hair thinning and weakened nail beds. Four other employees say they are in therapy because of their experiences. Three people say they experienced suicidal ideation as a result of the working environment.

“Mentally, I was in the lowest place of my life. I didn’t want to live anymore. I thought about taking my own life all the time,” one former employee says. “I knew deep down I would never actually do it, but in my head, I’m like, ‘Why do I think about this all the time?’”

One employee says they lost nearly 20 pounds during their time working under showrunner Granet-Bederman, felt like they were on edge all of the time, and cried themselves to sleep every night.

“I know other people who were in [my] department who also were unhappy with [mis]treatment but it was never a thing where any of us were empowered enough to say anything,” this employee says. “It just always felt like, ‘You should be grateful that you have a job, and you should be grateful that you have this position at this show, at this network. Everyone wants to be in this spot. You have worked hard to get here — it shouldn’t be a thing where you’re being ungrateful.’”

ACCORDING TO MOST employees who spoke to Rolling Stone, it’s common knowledge behind the scenes that Fallon’s temperament, mood, and treatment of staffers is erratic. These employees say they’ve witnessed Fallon snap at crew members, express irritation over the smallest of things, and berate and belittle staffers out of frustration. Three former employees say that he berated them in front of other colleagues and crew members.

“It was like, if Jimmy is in a bad mood, everyone’s day is fucked,” one former employee says. “People wouldn’t joke around in the office, and they wouldn’t stand around and talk to each other. It was very much like, focus on whatever it is that you have to do because Jimmy’s in a bad mood, and if he sees that, he might fly off.”

“We’re up against it” was a commonly-used phrase around the office among employees, they say, to warn each other if Fallon was “not having a good day” and therefore, everyone else was in for a rough one as well.

Over the years, there have been rumors and gossip items about Fallon’s relationship with alcohol. In 2016, the New York Post ran a story alleging that NBC executives were concerned about Fallon’s drinking. Fallon denied this in a New York Times profile published in 2017, saying, “I could never do a day-to-day job if I was drinking every night. That’s just kicking you when you’re down.”

But two employees say they saw Fallon seemingly inebriated at work in 2017. Another two employees say on separate occasions in 2019 and 2020 they thought they smelled alcohol on Fallon’s breath when they entered an elevator with him during the workday. According to eight former employees, Fallon’s behavior seemed to be dependent on if he appeared to be hungover from the night before.

“When something was wrong, we all knew how to behave afterward, which was just sort of avoid eye contact and don’t make another mistake,” one former staffer says. “It would happen over the smallest thing… We would have to shut the whole thing down, the sketch isn’t happening, and when things like that would happen, you would just beat yourself up.”

The erratic nature of the talk-show host’s behavior led to widespread fear around those who interacted with him, employees say. “Sometimes we would get nice Jimmy, but that sometimes was not a lot,” one former employee says. “It was just really, really sad to me that this really talented man created such a horrible environment for the people there.”

One employee says depending on Fallon’s mood, they felt like his notes and feedback could be passive-aggressive — personal insults as opposed to constructive criticism. They say he would write comments like, “Are you OK? Seriously, do you need help?” Rolling Stone reviewed photos of the employees’ alleged notes from Fallon that read, “Ugh, lame. What is going on with you? You’ve outdone yourself.” The same employee says Fallon would also send combative emails, one of which was reviewed by Rolling Stone, to certain staffers if he was dissatisfied with their work.

Two employees remember witnessing Fallon scold the crew member who was in charge of his cue cards in the middle of a taping with comedian Jerry Seinfeld. They say it was an uncomfortable moment. Seinfeld told Fallon to apologize to the cue-card production member, which he then allegedly did. The employees say this incident, which felt awkward to watch, did not make it to the version of the show that appeared on television.

“It was very awkward, and Jerry [Seinfeld] was like, ‘You should apologize to him,’ almost trying to make it a joke,” a former employee says. “It was one of the strangest moments ever and so many people were there, so it’s kind of hard to forget.”

Representatives for Seinfeld did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Following the publication of the story, however, Seinfeld sent a statement to Rolling Stone: “This is so stupid. I remember this moment quite well… I teased Jimmy about a flub, and we all had a fun laugh about how rarely Jimmy is thrown off. It was not uncomfortable at all. Jimmy and I still occasionally recall it and laugh. Idiotic twisting of events.”

IN THE SUMMER of 2020, a video of Fallon in blackface during an SNL skit resurfaced online. This came at a heightened time of racial and social awareness because of the George Floyd murder and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests across the country. The talk-show host tweeted an apology for the video, saying, “In 2000, while on SNL, I made a terrible decision to do an impersonation of Chris Rock while in blackface. There is no excuse for this. I am very sorry for making this unquestionably offensive decision and thank all of you for holding me accountable.” He also spoke to The New York Times about the incident. While Fallon publicly addressed the video, employees say there was an internal uproar because staff members weren’t happy the talk-show host didn’t directly acknowledge the incident with them.

“It was the first time I had seen the video even though I was told, ‘Oh, this resurfaced again,’” one former employee says. “So I’m sure for many other people on staff, especially younger folks, it was probably the first time they were seeing it, too.”

The same former employee says when the clip started going viral online, senior leadership initially wanted to “sweep it under the rug.”

“I asked, ‘Are we going to use this as an educational moment? Are we going to be a pillar of change and be the role model as an example for the future?’”

Purcell, the showrunner at the time, did implement regular internal diversity and culture meetings afterward, and to this day, The Tonight Show has a diversity and inclusion council. Some employees say they were hopeful that he wanted to make lasting changes at the show. But they were let down a few months later when Granet-Bederman took over. She began bullying and mistreating staff, five employees say.

One Black employee says Granet-Bederman kept asking them, “What is going on with your hair?” The employee also says they witnessed Granet-Bederman make comments about how much food people would eat, saying to staffers, “We’re just eating a lot today and not caring about what we look like?” Two employees say they were also mistreated by Sweiss who bullied, intimidated, and yelled at them.

Granet-Bederman and Sweiss did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Sweiss left The Tonight Show in 2021 when she signed an overall deal with Universal Television, and Granet-Bederman left the show in March 2022 when Miller took over the program.

“They are the worst bosses I’ve ever had in my life. They use that position of power to bully and treat the staff that way, and the network is aware of how they treat people,” one former employee says. “They not only continue to enable it, but they reward it.”

Five employees say they spoke to HR about their experiences behind the scenes of The Tonight Show in their exit interviews when they voluntarily left the show as well as during their time of employment. One longtime employee says they never reported their issues to HR because early on in their tenure at the show, they saw colleagues of theirs attempt to speak to human resources representatives and subsequently get fired from the show.

“They don’t protect us,” the former staffer says. “They don’t do anything for us.”

They are the worst bosses I’ve ever had in my life. They use that position of power to bully and treat the staff that way, and the network is aware of how they treat people.

Another former staffer says they reached out to HR to express concerns they had about working under Granet-Bederman. After requesting a formal meeting with HR over email, they say Granet-Bederman put them on a performance-improvement plan — a step before disciplinary action, including termination. They say they were surprised to learn Granet-Bederman wasn’t happy with their performance up until that point. The employee says they heard from HR afterward, and then in a subsequent meeting with HR reps for NBC, they shared their issues and concerns, including that they were experiencing suicidal ideation. They say they later saw an email exchange between HR and Granet-Bederman, which was reviewed by Rolling Stone, in which the HR rep denigrated the employee to Granet-Bederman.

“That was super frustrating to me and kind of devastating because it felt as if I finally had someone on my side, and I quickly learned that that was not the case,” they say. “Everything that I relayed to HR was then relayed to my manager, so it was not a safe space. It felt as if they were acting in the interest of one person instead of the interests of the greater whole.”

The employee found another job, and when they had their exit interview, they said they didn’t feel comfortable being honest about their experience; Granet-Bederman showed up to the final meeting with HR, which doesn’t usually happen during an employee’s exit interview with human resources.

“It felt as if it was an intimidation tactic,” they said. “And I did not feel as if I could voice my experience about my time on the show because everything would just go back to Jamie [Granet-Bederman].”

For a third former employee, it was upsetting and confusing to get fired without receiving any reason, especially since they were a longtime employee who had come over to The Tonight Show after spending years working for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. The employee says they were never given any warnings or negative feedback about their work, and were blindsided by the firing.

“I ended up talking to the HR person later on the phone, and she was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve never seen anything like this.’ She was like, ‘I don’t know why you’re being let go. You didn’t do anything wrong.… I’ve never seen somebody get fired for no reason,’” the former staffer says.

THE TONIGHT SHOW went dark in early May when the writers’ strike began. (The show, which employs members of the Writers Guild of America, would have otherwise gone on summer hiatus later that month.) After NBC and Fallon himself reportedly paid staffers’ salaries for three weeks in the midst of the strike, employees were then put on an unpaid leave of absence. Last week, Fallon and other late night television hosts Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, and John Oliver launched a collaborative limited podcast series called Strike Force Five while the writers’ strike continues. Proceeds from the podcast will go toward the hosts’ staff members while they’re out of work due to the strike. While the Hollywood studios have recently met with the WGA negotiating committee and opened up talks again, it’s unclear how much longer the strike will continue. This leaves The Tonight Show and other late-night programs in limbo while they wait for both sides to reach a deal.

In 2021,The Tonight Show, which is produced by Universal Television, Broadway Video, and Fallon’s production company Electric Hot Dog, was renewed by NBC until 2026. Even though there’s been a shift in leadership in the past year with Miller taking over in 2022, staffers say the show’s track record of a revolving door of showrunners as well as Fallon’s alleged behavior leave them pessimistic about what the future of The Tonight Show will look like. Employees say they want to see long-term changes in the work environment at The Tonight Show. They also say they want Fallon and NBC, who are well aware of The Tonight Show’s past issues, to be held accountable and take employees’ concerns seriously to change the environment for the better.

“I love The Tonight Show, and I love comedy. I gave my heart and soul to that place. I want to see them succeed and do well, but for that to happen, there are major changes that need to take place, starting with Jimmy,” a former employee says. “They all need to dig their heads out of the sand and do something about the very obvious problems that we all know are happening.”

UPDATE 12:33PM: This story has been updated to include Jerry Seinfeld’s comments.

UPDATE 6:19PM: This story has been updated to include Fallon’s apology.

If you have more information or a tip regarding workplace culture on The Tonight Show or anywhere else in the entertainment industry, contact kyandoli@rollingstone.com.

From Rolling Stone US