Conan’s debut – too much Conan?
By Tom Shales
The Washington Post
By now “The Tonight Show” is like the White House; it belongs not to its occupant of the moment but to the American people. So it was not encouraging Monday night to see Conan O’Brien devoting the entire first half of his first “Tonight Show” to himself.
O’Brien’s opening-night guest, Will Ferrell, didn’t walk out until nearly 10 minutes past midnight. Not good for a show that begins at 11:35 p.m.
In addition, though “The Tonight Show” has always been either live or live-on-tape, meaning recorded in one continuous stream a few hours earlier than its air time, O’Brien’s premiere was overloaded with pre-taped bits, so many that it lost some of the immediacy that is central to the show. It was too often a recording of a recording.
Ferrell didn’t really walk out, incidentally; he was carried out on a litter by four muscular extras done up as Egyptians. It was a spectacular if not hilarious entrance, but Ferrell is always a sure-fire guest; he can turn weak material inside out and find silver linings in the darkest places.
By the time he finally appeared, many viewers may already have had their fills of O’Brien, who has gone from being the proprietor of an endearingly zany curiosity shop to being the impresario at the center of a gleaming circus maximus, resplendent on a gorgeous new set in a huge refurbished studio on the Universal lot in Los Angeles.
Moving up to the big time, and relocating to the earlier time slot, seems to have robbed Conan of much of his charm. Much ó but not all. He still comes across as an earnestly likable goof, and though hardly a comedy monologist of previous host Jay Leno’s skill, he has a skewed sensibility that is unlike any other TV host’s. He just shouldn’t spread himself so thick.
Early statistics from Nielsen suggest that fewer people watched O’Brien’s debut than watched Leno’s finale, but the number who tuned in was still relatively high for a Monday night.
Before the opening credits, O’Brien starred in a clever and very elaborate taped routine in which he moved from New York to Los Angeles on foot. Through the magic of tape editing, he was seen running up Fifth Avenue, across a bridge into New Jersey, then through Amish country, Chicago (he dashed across Wrigley Field during a Cubs game), St. Louis, Las Vegas and other American spots and onto the Universal lot, where he discovered he left the keys to the studio in New York.
At 11:40 announcer Andy Richter, previously O’Brien’s sidekick in the early years of “Late Night,” said “Here’s your host, Conan O’Brien,” and O’Brien stepped out on the shiny-shiny floor of his new TV home to an arduously lengthy ovation from the audience ó a group that at least twice applauded the phrase “Universal lot.” As O’Brien quipped, “At least we know the applause sign works.” Perhaps too well. Richter is miked throughout O’Brien’s monologue, so that his laughter can be picked up just as Ed McMahon’s was when Johnny Carson was the “Tonight” show king.
After a weak monologue with few topical jokes, O’Brien introduced another taped piece in which he commandeered a “tram” on the Universal Tour and made wisecracks for the tourists riding along.
At around midnight, O’Brien paid tribute to Jay Leno, who manned the “Tonight” desk for 17 years, calling him “a true gentleman” and “a very gracious man.”
The hour was solid with noise, both visual and audible. The house band under Max Weinberg sounds bigger and better than ever. The set really is beautiful from every angle.
There’s every indication O’Brien will be up to the job of his illustrious predecessors, but he should be confident enough to share the stage with his guests and costars.