So How Did Conan O'Brien's First Night Go?

Conan O'Brien made his debut as the host of The Tonight Show on Monday, becoming only the program's fifth host in 55 years. And even after a 3,000-mile run to calm his nerves, he seemed to bristle slightly under the pressure of legacy, expectations and making the occasional Clippers joke. It was as conspicuously new-era as institutions get, and for better or worse, it felt like it.

As a New Yorker, the cold open of O'Brien's transcontinental trot from Manhattan -- where we deeply miss him already -- to Universal Studios was a bittersweet triumph. What better way to warm up to The Tonight Show's older, flyover-state demographics than to jog through their own unmistakable terrain, one monument, one landscape at a time? It was quirk on parade, with the near-perfect punchline suggesting just how regular a guy this urbane, Harvard-educated godchild of irony might actually be.

The monologue, not so much, with O'Brien alternating focus-grouped modesty with his spasmodic, Late Night limb-flinging. Even his eyes seemed to squirm, first to Andy Richter (who was little help), then in a slow sweep of the 372-strong studio audience that he said was as big as that of a Clippers game. It was the first time I'd ever seen Conan O'Brien patronize anybody; the crowd ate it up. "Now I know what goes over well here," he replied, almost despite himself. A clip featuring Joe Biden whispering his love of Mexican cuisine in Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's ear was a flimsy bit of Lenoesque juvenilia, to which the host nevertheless responded with his own silent, stock-still trademark, that posture screaming, "Yes, we went there."

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He also went on the Universal Studios tram ride -- perhaps the highlight of the show for its even more showy shotgun wedding of populism and irony: likening the back-lot's torrent of floodwaters to the Octo-Mom's water breaking, then directing the driver to troll in circles before breaking free to tour Hollywood itself ("Who wants to go to the 99-Cent Store?"). And how about the implicit repudiation of his predecessor's car fetish, with O'Brien taking a 1992 Ford Taurus for its first, anti-glamorous spin around L.A.? Before he'd even really settled into his sprawling new desk at midnight, O'Brien had left a specifically Californian trail of carnage: Tweak expectations, check. Celebrate culture, check. Drive everywhere, check. "I am one of you," the segments hinted, further breaking New Yorkers' hearts despite the profound, Hollywood-Sign shattering outsiderness of it all.

Yet that won't last forever, and at age 46, Conan will modulate sooner than later. It happened to David Letterman, who was interviewing Bill Cosby of all people over on CBS while O'Brien kicked off his interview cycle with another reconstructed man-child, Will Ferrell. As the West-Coast impulse softened Ferrell's edge while vastly expanding his appeal, so will it affect O'Brien. You can see it in the hair, stiller than ever, or the hands, so often unpocketed. There's a minimum of Max Weinberg, a sleepiness in the big space between them.

And finally, a host, running, breaking down a wall, and coming to rest. And a smile that says point-blank: "Well, what now?" Funny -- I was going to ask him the same thing.

· Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien [NBC]



Comments

  • JudgeFudge says:

    Last Night's show felt like the J.J. Abrahms reboot of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.

  • CiscoMan says:

    Circle! Circle! Circle!
    Completely disagree about the Clippers joke. Thought it went over moderately, at best, with the crowd, and his "Now I know what goes over well here" was another in a long line of ironic mea culpas for a joke that didn't work as expected. Which I've always enjoyed from him.
    I hope the lack of interaction with the band was just a symptom of this being the first night. Andy Richter was awfully useless. Otherwise I loved it.
    And I think a telling sign of things to come: I watched Fallon afterwards.

  • Seth Abramovitch says:

    I liked the set, thought it's kind of massive. It was like 42 inches of blue curtain and 4 of blinding white and orange.
    And Jimmy Fallon seems like he's getting better? I actually watched most of the show. He had a couple decent off-the-cuff lines in it.

  • Old No.7 says:

    It would have been funnier if Conan did a homage to the cold open on his first show on NBC, him walking down the street as everybody told him "Hey, don't screw it up". The last cameo could have been Ed McMahon standing by the stage door, holding a Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes envelope.
    By the way, it's 12:30am and Jimmy Fallon still sucks ass.

  • JudgeFudge says:

    I will have to give Fallon some credit for the fact that his show has lots of energy or something. His band is great, his set is cool, he always has tons of bits lined up. I still find him kind of smug or "cute" in a self aware way, but if he can get his monologue chops down and feel more relaxed with guests, I think his show will be fine.

  • Gene Dawson says:

    I didnt think it was a bad thing but I still keep the remote close.Jimmy Fallon dose a great job!

  • Ronnie says:

    Letterman is still the Master - no one will ever come close - Conan & Fallon are amateurs - they could learn alot from watching Dave; In the end Letterman will be the BIG ratings winner.

  • Ambot says:

    Conan did a great job despite the unenviable expectations. Feels like The Tonight Show is a class act again. Gone is Jay's set that had that basement rec room feel, the cheeseball camera work and bottom of the barrel jokes.
    Conan's set looked great. The band was on. He'll settle in just fine. Richter needs to get out of the way, perhaps leave the show. He didn't add a thing.

  • Dave says:

    Did anyone else find Andy Richter's fawning laughter completely annoying and embarrassing? I like the guy, but come'on Andy, don't be such a dweeb...I liked him better when he sat with Conan on the couch and deadpanned with no expression...this has got to change!

  • Miles says:

    Other than the opening bit across the country being more of an homage to Letterman's CBS premiere (Bill Murray traveling across NYC), I thought Conan did a fine job. He's funny. I love Andy Richter, but have always hated him as the sidekick. Oh well.

  • rollup says:

    Wow. You ARE the greatest.

  • stahlbau says:

    Wow. You ARE the greatest.

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