Jimmy Fallon didn’t get cold feet. But the rest of him looked downright numb as the shell-shocked “Tonight Show” host exited Lake Michigan soaking wet and freezing cold after Sunday’s Polar Plunge.
“What is wrong with you people?” Fallon asked the event’s record-breaking crowd at North Avenue Beach shortly before bolting into the Arctic waters in a suit and tie. “If you hear the scream of a little girl, just know that Jimmy Fallon is swimming in Lake Michigan.”
The mercury in the thermometer hovered around 10 degrees for the 14th annual Polar Plunge, Special Olympics Chicago’s biggest fund-raiser. More than 3,200 plungers, many dressed in costumes or sporting neckties like Fallon requested, took turns flocking into the frigid lake.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel was among them, doing his first polar plunge. He’d pledged to do it if the city’s kids read at least 2 million library books last summer, when the idea of jumping into Lake Michigan probably didn’t sound so bad. He wore a green T-shirt that said “The Kids Made Me Do This.”
Sunday’s record-high number of participants — some 2,300 plunged last year — also raised an unprecedented amount of money.
“We’re going to break our $1 million goal,” said Special Olympics Chicago President Jennifer Kramer, dressed as a polar bear. Once Fallon committed to doing the plunge, registrations snowballed. “We never expected this kind of response.”
Before they hit the water, Emanuel thanked the comic with a resolution declaring Chicago “Jimmy Fallon Tonight Show Land.” He gave Fallon a souvenir to take home to his 7-month-old daughter, Winnie: a pink onesie from the Billy Goat.
Emanuel and Fallon’s brrr-romance was spawned by a Sun-Times story that ran when Fallon took over NBC’s late-night talker. Fallon said in the article that he was “scared of” Emanuel, whom he gave an open invitation to be a “Tonight Show” guest — or host, for that matter.
Sensing an opportunity, the triathlete mayor ran with it, shooting off an opening salvo on social media. Emanuel tweeted that Fallon needed to “toughen up for the big leagues,” and he’d go on Fallon’s show if the late-night host would join him in doing the Polar Plunge.
The duo volleyed tweets back and forth — with the Twitterverse egging Fallon on until the Brooklyn-born comic capitulated last week, tweeting “Lake Michigan will have a New York fish this weekend.”
NBC’s “Tonight Show” captain wasn’t alone in representing the Peacock network at this year’s plunge, held during Chicago’s third coldest and snowiest winter on record. Several stars from the NBC drama “Chicago Fire” and its spin-off, “Chicago P.D.” dove in, including Taylor Kinney, Jesse Spencer, Jon Seda, Charlie Barnett and Naperville native David Eigenberg.
Former Chicago Bear Israel Idonije also endured an icy swim, as did Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, Chicago Public Library Commissioner Brian Bannon, Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly and Sochi Olympics bronze medal skier Nick Goepper from Indiana.
Emanuel joked that he planned to enter the lake on Idonije’s shoulders at a pre-plunge press conference, where the mayor got visibly choked up talking about a woman he met at Jewel on Saturday. The woman has a child with special needs.
“We just started crying together,” Emanuel said, his voice cracking before reverting back to its trademark sternness. “There are parents out there, children out there who have something they can give. Today we show it’s not just the city of big shoulders, [but] a city of big hearts. A city that while it may be physically cold, there’s a lot of warmth.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Click here to get a full gallery of Sunday’s Polar Plunge.
Fallon noted that Chicago and New York have a lot in common.
“Great people, great food,” he told the crowd. “But it’s more the spirit. Looking at everyone out here today, this is the human spirit. We’re living life to the fullest.”
Few of Sunday’s hardy souls appeared to have had the life sucked out of them as much as Fallon did. He surfaced from the frigid water to the cheers of onlookers, some hoisting giant pictures of his face. His wide-eyed expression looked as if he showed up for work to find the ghost of Johnny Carson sitting behind his desk.
Emanuel isn’t the first Chicagoan to inflict pain on Fallon. In November, Chicago native Harrison Ford seemed to delight in breaking out a big needle and piercing his ear on “Late Night.”
But Chicagoans in general have been plenty good to the former “Saturday Night Live” star — and that might have played into his calculus to take the plunge. Some 491,718 viewers in Nielsen’s Chicago-area market tuned in to watch the ex-”Late Night” host’s Feb. 17 “Tonight Show” premiere, which logged an impressive 10.4 household rating — the highest in the nation.
Last week Fallon continued to easily dominate the competition here, averaging more than twice as many total viewers as ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel (129,129) and commanding an even bigger lead over CBS’s David Letterman (102,794). He also lit it up in the advertiser-coveted adult demo of 18-to-49-year-olds, averaging a 2.6 rating compared to Kimmel’s 0.9 and Letterman’s 0.4.
Fallon doing the Polar Plunge not only gets Emanuel on “The Tonight Show” and raises money for a good cause. It’s a thank you note of sorts to Chicago, and fans know he’s fond of thank you notes.
“Hopefully I make it back to ‘The Tonight Show,’” said Fallon, who didn’t loiter after the event, “unless we’re going to do ‘The Tonight Show’ from Chicago from now on.”