Taylor Swift wasn't scheduled to appear on The Tonight Show Monday.
Host Jimmy Fallon returned to Studio 6-B after taking time off to grieve the loss of his mother. "As some of you know, my mother Gloria passed away recently and I canceled our shows last week to be with my family and make arrangements. She was the best audience. She was the one I was always trying to make laugh, and she was such a fan of the show and everything I did," he said as tears flowed. "When we were little, my mum would walk us to the store—me and my sister—and we would hold hands. And she would squeeze my hand three times and say, 'I love you,' and I would squeeze back, 'I love you, too.' Last week I was in the hospital, at her side. I grabbed her hand and I squeezed, 'I love you,' and I just knew we were in trouble."
Jimmy continued to cry as he thanked his fans for their encouragement. "I feel so grateful to be able to do this every single night, and I'm very appreciative of all the support from all of you that my family received over the past week. We are going to continue to work hard to bring life and laughter into the world. Thank you for watching. Thank you for helping me and my family recover from this loss. Mom, I'll never stop trying to make you laugh," Jimmy said. "I love you."
Later in the episode, Taylor sat at the piano and performed "New Year's Day," off her current album, reputation. In the second verse, the 27-year-old Grammy winner sang, "You squeeze my hand three times in the back of the taxi / I can tell that it's gonna be a long road / I'll be there if you're the toast of the town, babe / Or if you strike out and you're crawling home." After the show aired, The Roots' drummer Questlove tweeted, "I'm just realizing Taylor didn't readjust the song's lyrics for tonight's performance. But the narrative literally applies to the words Jimmy spoke of his mother. Wow. You can't plan these things @taylorswift13 @FallonTonight."
Questlove also confirmed that Taylor's performance was a surprise to everyone. "Like we are mins away from 2000 episodes and in our 8 years on the air I've never heard the ceiling almost cave in once @Higbones said Taylor's name, rewind dvr, and you can see me ask the producer's desk," he tweeted. "'Y'all didn't tell them Taylor was the music act!!?' Ha ha @FallonTonight."
After the show aired, Tonight Show producer and writer Mike DiCenzo gave more insight into Jimmy's return and Taylor's piece. "It was a really tough day for our whole staff. A lot of us knew his mom Gloria, and she was the best. The best. She loved the show, she loved all of us, and most of all, she loved Jimmy. They talked on the phone every day. As Jimmy said, she was his biggest fan. And as @Questlove said, Jimmy is not only our boss, he's our family," he said. "We love him. So we were devastated for him last week, and we were feeling for him today."
"I'm sure today was especially tough for Jimmy. The fact that he came out, stood there, and did a normal monologue for the crowd is a testament to how strong he is. But at the desk, you could hear his voice break when talking about our musical guest Taylor Swift, and that's because he knew what he was about to say... Jimmy's words about his mom were beautiful. 'Mom, I'll never stop trying to make you laugh. I love you.' I was crying. We all were. The story about his mom squeezing his hand 3 times to say 'I love you' when he was a kid, and then him squeezing her hand in the hospital - he hadn't told any of us that story... More on that in a second. First, a quick word about Taylor Swift. She was not scheduled to do our show today. But we wanted something special for this first show back, so we asked her on a complete whim, since she had been in town doing SNL. She said yes with zero hesitation. She sang 'New Year's Day.' No one had heard it. Suddenly she sings the line, 'Squeeze my hand 3 times in the back of the taxi.' I nearly gasped. Tears," he wrote. "I think everyone in the audience started sobbing."
"I could see Jimmy silhouetted at his desk dabbing his eyes with a tissue. We all lost it. It was a beautiful coincidence in a beautiful performance. 'Hold on to your memories, they will hold on to you,' Taylor sang. That hug between Jimmy and Taylor after the song was 100% real emotion. Whatever you think of Taylor, she did something beautiful for Jimmy and our show today, and we're forever grateful. Thank you to Taylor, the Roots, [Steve Higgins], our whole staff and crew, and to all the FalPals, fans, and everyone who reached out to and supported Jimmy and his family. I can tell you it meant everything to him," he tweeted. "One last note: our show was right on time today, but we edited out a minute to leave room for Jimmy high-fiving audience members during the end credits. It was Gloria's favorite part of the show. We love you, Gloria."
(E! and NBC are both members of the NBCUniversal family.)