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."
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]