Jimmy Fallon is celebrating his fifth anniversary at the helm of The Tonight Show with an extra special episode on Monday night, but if you’re not familiar with a niche ’90s television staple, the big celebration may leave you confused. The episode features Tina Fey, Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro, Florida Georgia Line, and Robert Irwin, an Australian TV personality and son of the late Steve Irwin. The most surprising part, however, is that everyone is angry. No, really angry.
During behind-the-scenes moments, for instance, Tina Fey tells Fallon, “You’re the reason Trump got elected.” Ben Stiller throws water in a hallway, and sweet conservationist Robert Irwin tells Fallon that he’s a bad man.
So why is everyone being such a jerk to Fallon on his anniversary? And why are we seeing behind the scenes of The Tonight Show? The whole episode is an homage to The Larry Sanders Show. If you’ve never heard of it, fear not: we have it covered.
What is The Larry Sanders Show?
The Larry Sanders Show was a half-hour sitcom starring Garry Shandling and Jeffrey Tambor that ran on HBO throughout the ’90s. The show follows the behind-the-scenes atmosphere of a late-night television series through exaggerated characters and meta-commentary about show business. So those attitudes you see from Tina Fey and Steve Irwin’s son, Robert, are all manufactured to pay homage to what Garry Shandling created back then.
The series won three Emmy awards and is considered by critics to be among the greatest TV shows ever created. But it never quite established the same kind of audience that shows like The Sopranos or Sex and the City would garner on HBO. Still, Larry Sanders set the tone for one of TV’s most reputable cable networks, as well as influenced shows like 30 Rock, The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and the short-lived The Muppets. It also boasted an insane repertoire of guest stars, including Catherine O’Hara, Ellen Degeneres, Sally Field, Jerry Seinfeld, and Ben Stiller (who pops in for Fallon’s version).
But why do a throwback for Fallon’s fifth anniversary?
Fallon’s homage to the show makes sense. The inspiration for Larry Sanders came from The Tonight Show. Not only did Shandling appear as a stand-up comic on The Tonight Show—his first time on the show was in 1981—but also served as guest host during the Johnny Carson era.
Meanwhile, Larry Sanders was an enormous influence on Fallon. Shortly after Shandling’s death from a heart attack in 2016, Fallon paid tribute to the comedian on his show. “He was just the best,” Fallon said. “I just love him. He was one of the greatest standup comedians ever. If you’re thinking about getting into standup comedy, or if you just like watching it, you can’t go through without seeing Garry Shandling.”
Is everything on the episode fake then?
Actually, no. One of the most innovative parts of The Larry Sanders Show is that its satirical elements mixed reality with fiction. So, as far as we know, Tina Fey doesn’t have beef with Jimmy Fallon, but that Amy Poehler-directed film called Wine Country that she discussed on the show really is coming to Netflix this May. We also have to assume that Ben Stiller probably hates being a panda bear, but that’s the magic of TV—you may never know.