Entertainment behind the scenes
Conan slicks it up for “Tonight Show” debut
Conan O’Brien is famous for his geeky pompadour hair style and weird sketches, but on his Monday night debut as host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” the comedian looked as if he meant to tone down the more risky elements of his former show (“Late Night”) to win over audiences grown accustomed to watching the affable Jay Leno for 17 years.
The Masturbating Bear and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog were absent from the show, after becoming burned into the memories of anyone who stayed up until 12:30 a.m. to watch O’Brien’s former show “Late Night” on NBC. Those two staples of the old show were true to its style of using cheap costumes and props to play up a double joke, the surface humor of one-liners and the underlying comedy of a major network show relying on cheesy production values.
Instead, in his “Tonight Show” debut O’Brien relied on an endless stream of humor showing him as a fish-out-of-water transplant from New York landed in Los Angeles. There were jokes involving the Clippers and the Lakers basketball teams, the famed Hollywood sign and a tour of Universal Studios, a theme park attraction. Making fun of L.A. was a staple of Leno’s show, with his “Jaywalking” sketch that involved testing city residents’ often abysmally low knowledge of topical news and history, such as who was the first U.S. president.
In his “Tonight Show” debut, O’Brien made fun of L.A. too, but most of his jokes spun back at himself. In a segment showing O’Brien at a Lakers game, instead of sitting up front with celebrity royalty Jack Nicholson, O’Brien was shown stuffing himself with popcorn in the arena’s last row.
“Late Show” regular Max Weinberg (who was the drummer for Bruce Springsteen) and his band joined O’Brien in his new gig, as did his former sidekick Andy Richter, who is now the show’s announcer. Oh, and comedian Will Ferrell was carried in on a litter before his guest segment.
It all seems to have worked, as O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” debut brought in the biggest Monday audience for the show in four years. It scored a 7.1 rating, which compares to a 4.0 for a typical “Tonight Show” episode.
In a snap judgment column, Mickey O’Connor of TV Guide wrote that “O’Brien has kept his mischievous, self-deprecating glee intact, but nothing about the show appeared to be too surreal or alienating for the timeslot’s existing, graying audience.”
But O’Connor added that O’Brien will probably “take a few weeks to test those risque waters.”
David Hinckley of the New York Daily News had a similar take in a column titled “Conan eases into ‘Tonight Show,’ saying the comic “is sure to unleash his naughty side.”
And in his Time magazine blog, critic James Poniewozik wrote that O’Brien has come along way from when he took over “Late Night” from David Letterman 16 years ago, after stints writing for “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons.”
“The Conan we saw on stage last night knows that he’s the big man at the big desk, leading the big show. But he also seems to know that staying there will mean staying true to the oddball comedy writer who ambled onto NBC 16 years ago,” Poniewozik wrote.
In the opening segment for “The Tonight Show,” O’Brien was shown on video running across America to make it to the studio in L.A. on time. It was a clever play on the role he will have to tackle entertaining all of the nation on the coveted “Tonight Show” slot. Can he do it?