Jimmy Fallon isn’t the first television host to bring a talk show to the heart of Texas. Jimmy Kimmel spent a few days in Austin during South by Southwest in both 2014 and 2015. Then, two years ago, Ellen DeGeneres hosted a Beyoncé look-alike contest on the University of Texas campus (though she merely Skyped in for the occasion). But Fallon is the first to do more than merely treat the city and UT as a comedic backdrop. During his short visit to the capital city—culminating in a Tonight Show taping on Thursday evening at UT’s Bass Concert Hall—he seemed to genuinely take pains to understand and communicate what a special place it is.
By the time the taping began, Fallon had already joined in the time-honored student tradition of jumping into Littlefield Fountain. He had also accepted a custom jersey from UT president Greg Fenves, hung out with the marching band, and even visited student journalists in the Daily Texan basement.
Some of his other escapades around Austin this week were filmed for the show’s pre-taped introduction, which began at campus-area bar the Hole in the Wall. Fallon embarked on a musical montage, set to the tune of John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” that took him to a scooter ride along Sixth Street and eventually onto the 50-yard line at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Replacing the song’s lyrics to work in some digs about the University of Oklahoma, as well as references to Lone Star, hot weather, and even hotter hot sauce, the video cut off to reveal Fallon marching onto the Bass hall stage to the delight of the packed-in audience.
Dressed in a custom black Longhorn band uniform (complete with a bolo tie), Fallon arrived in a cloud of burnt orange and white confetti, accompanied by school mascot Hook ’Em, spirited UT fan group the Hellraisers, Longhorn band members, and Texas cheerleaders. The entrance scored major points with the audience of roughly three thousand students.
His monologue garnered easy laughs by poking fun at breakfast tacos, rival schools, and the prevalence of scooters in the city. Noting that it might have been difficult to get tickets for the taping, Fallon joked, “If you wanted somewhere easy to get into, you’d be at A&M.” He closed the first segment by bringing three lucky students onstage to announce that Samsung (the night’s sponsor) would pay the remainder of their tuition.
During the next commercial break, Texas cheerleaders got into formation, holding up a giant “M.O.C.” banner that signaled the arrival of the man, the meme, the legend: Minister of Culture and Professor Matthew McConaughey. The audience had been given bracelets that lit up in burnt orange as the actor walked onstage, welcomed by a sea of hands raised to display hook ’em signs. McConaughey’s guest spot was appropriate, since it was his viral College GameDay entrance earlier this year that prompted Fallon to consider a trip to the university in the first place.
McConaughey could’ve said nothing but “Hook ’Em,” and he still would have been met with wild applause. But, true to form, he waxed poetic on what he loves about Austin before taking a selfie with the audience for the second post on his newly launched Instagram account. “All you’ve got to do to make it here is just be yourself,” he said. “What unites all this diversity is the cowboy code: nobody’s too good, everyone’s good enough.” Fallon agreed, saying the city’s Southern hospitality had exceeded his expectations—people in Austin were more than willing to recommend barbecue joints, buy him beers, or even offer him a ride home.
Next, a pre-taped segment featured Fallon visiting the Moody College of Communication, where he played the student of McConaughey’s nightmares before redeeming himself by performing “The Eyes of Texas” with McConaughey and the audience.
Chip and Joanna Gaines were the next guests, drawing the ire of the crowd by bringing up their alma mater, Baylor University, as well as its football team’s undefeated 8-0 record. Joking that the chorus of boos they were met with was actually an extended “I love youuu” from the audience, the former Fixer Upper hosts got the audience excited again with Joanna’s announcement that she will host a cooking show on the couple’s Magnolia TV network, which debuts in October 2020. Chip also donned a cowboy hat and taught Jimmy how to two-step.
Musical guest Gucci Mane brought to life his 2015 advice column to dole out words of wisdom and then performed a trap version of “The Eyes of Texas” (these are words I never thought I would write). It got the crowd going, even though it was just a short rap that happened to have some Texas references in it: “I’m in Texas ain’t no flexin’, my money long like the horns.”
The Tonight Show is a tightly run ship, and the show was over just as quickly as it began. Fallon popped back out to say thank you and to do-si-do to a performance of “Deep in the Heart of Texas” with some of the Longhorn band members. Surrounded by the voices of a few thousand students (plus a few former ones like myself), it was easy to get swept up in the emotion of the song. The audience never missed a chance to put their horns up, yell “Texas fight,” or let it be known that OU sucks.
After Fallon exited, a production assistant appeared, saying the show’s crew would be heading out to enjoy the city’s bars and saying that the evening had been the best show they’d ever done. Maybe they say that to all of their audiences. Probably so. Still, I’d like to believe it’s true—that the crazy amount of energy and pride is something a talk show could only harness at a place as singular as UT–Austin.
This story was updated to correct details about Fallon’s band uniform.