Jimmy Fallon’s recurring Lip Sync Battle segment, like most of the party games he hosts on The Tonight Show, has a simple and fundamental appeal: It’s fun to watch super-famous people who worked incredibly hard to be good at something bring the same overcommitment to bear on something dumb.
What elevates Lip Sync Battle above The Tonight Show’s other games — for instance, the trivia contest where the winner pours increasingly large amounts of ice down the loser’s pants — is that it involves a certain amount of performance. It takes a Melissa McCarthy–level screen presence to make a prop-heavy rendition of “Colors of the Wind” really pop, and that puts Lip Sync Battle right in the wheelhouse of most of Fallon’s guests.
But Shaquille O’Neal is a bit of a wildcard. As we all learned from Kazaam and his aborted hip-hop career, Shaq isn’t exactly a natural onscreen. He mostly tends to let his height do the talking. “Observe,” the camera says, “this man is tall,” and that’s the joke.
However, when a Shaq performance works, it mostly works because it’s so charming to watch the guy overcommit to what he’s doing: Look at him using that pro athlete work ethic on this crappy movie/sitcom cameo/rap album. Who could hate that? And “Look at this hard worker sweating over this crappy idea, how likable!” is basically the unofficial motto of The Tonight Show under Fallon.
So when Shaq dropped by to Lip Sync Battle against Fallon on Monday night, the matchup could have gone either way: lots of “observe, he’s tall, haha” jokes, or some genuine “aw, look at him try!” charm.
Instead, Shaq split the difference. He made the expected cracks about his height, scooping Fallon up like a wee little baby as they duetted their way through “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” But he also committed so hard, pulling random people out of the audience to dance with him to “My Prerogative” and arranging for Pitbull to make a surprise cameo.
In the moment when Shaq gamely pecks Fallon on the cheek in the introduction to “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” you can see the apotheosis of the sweaty theater kid charm that is fundamental to both Shaq and Lip Sync Battle itself.