Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Conan in the evening

Having slipped the surly bonds of the East Coast about three months ago, Conan O’ Briiiiiiiien launched his version of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” last night from Hollywood, stepping into the oversize comedic footsteps of Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and (for the last 17 years) Jay Leno.

“I think I’ve timed this moment perfectly,” O’Brien said from his capacious space on the Universal Studios lot. “I’m on a last-place network, I moved to a state that’s bankrupt, and tonight’s show is sponsored by General Motors.”

In his 380-seat theater — “exactly like being at a Clippers game,” he said — O’Brien welcomed comedian Will Ferrell as his first guest, followed by Pearl Jam, promoting its new album. This week’s scheduled guests include Gwyneth Paltrow, Sheryl Crow, Ryan Seacrest of “American Idol,” Green Day, Tom Hanks, John Mayer and Chickenfoot.

The first night of the new “Tonight Show” reflected opening-day jitters. O’Brien was nervous, and Andy Richter, O’Brien’s announcer and longtime sidekick, stepped on O’Brien’s delivery in places, laughing a little too loud at times given the material sandwiched between his guffaws.

But the manic O’Brien style of “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” was in evidence last night. Opening the show, O’Brien was seen in New York City running down a pre-show checklist of “to-do” items … last among them the need to “Get to L.A.,” something that his expression suggested he forgot to do. What followed in about three minutes was a cross-country dash across the continental United States on foot, a sprint that ends with O’Brien making it to the studio in L.A. just in time (despite having left the studio keys on a windowsill in … New York City).

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It can’t be said that O’Brien doesn’t have a clear sense of what he is, in the greater scheme of things. For months now, we’ve been seeing NBC promo spots for “The Tonight Show,” house ads that cannily positioned O’Brien as a product, a commodity. It’s not a bad strategy for a network whose prime-time lineup has struggled since the cancellation of “My Name Is Earl” and the long-running “ER,” and whose hold on late-night is up for grabs with Leno’s departure from the show. How he’ll fare against ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel and late-night king David Letterman, over on CBS, is anyone’s guess.

Conan O’Brien didn’t jump off the Santa Monica Pier last night (jumping into open water was one of the stunts he did earlier in his career). But for a network in firm control of third place, O’Brien’s “Tonight” may be the plunge that’s needed to change its ratings fortunes. With just five hosts in 55 years, the change of “Tonight Show” hosts is a more infrequent event in American life than changes in presidential administrations. For many Americans, it’s probably more important than the changes in those administrations.

O’Brien knows what’s at stake.

“I think the worst mistake I could make would be to overthink it,” he told Rob Salem of The Toronto Star on Sunday. “I think it just has to be a funny show. I need to worry about making June 1st funny, and then I have to worry about making June 2nd funny, and then June 3rd ...

“Every night you've got to come up with fresh material. And when you're doing five hours a week, you consume things really quickly. I call it ‘feeding the dragon.’”

Here’s hoping St. Conan can feed that beast five nights a week into perpetuity.
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Image credits: O’Brien, Tonight Show logo: © 2009 NBC.

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