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Conan O'Brien's first 'Tonight Show': Awkward, earnest and bound to improve

Obrien-tonight Late-night television is a long-term game.

So it's not bad that Conan O'Brien's first night helming NBC's venerated Tonight Show Monday felt a little awkward -- like swooping in for a kiss at the end of a first date.

As promised, O'Brien didn't lean on stand-up comedy the way his predecessor, the consummate stand-up comic Jay Leno did. Instead, oddly enough, the first night's shtick owed more to rival David Letterman, with a few perfunctory jokes laid out before launching into a series of taped bits that consumed half the show.

"I've got great timing," the carrot-topped giant cracked at the show's start, just after a routine that featured him forgetting to move from New York and running across the country to his new, cavernous Los Angeles studio (explaining the goofy promos with a lanky O'Brien huffing across the beach in a suit). "I'm on the last-place network, I moved to a state that's bankrupt and the show is sponsored by General Motors."

Then came a procession of taped pieces: Joe Biden in a fakeout asking Sonia Sotomayor "Do you have swine flu?" O'Brien sitting in the nosebleed section of a Lakers game. And the most successful, O'Brien serving as twisted tour guide for the Universal Studios tour tram -- something he also promised to do weeks ago -- eventually buying everyone on board silly knick-knacks at a nearby dollar store.

Here, we saw O'Brien's true ace in the hole -- viewers like him. So they'll give him time get used to his new studio, new city and new role -- ironing out awkward bits of timing with not-quite announcer, not-quite-sidekick Andy Richter. (Might I suggest a new hairstyle for Richter that doesn't look like a sleeping possum?)

Another important lesson: what did work, was the silly stuff. Bringing down the "D" from the Hollywood sign and singing "Hooray for Hollywoo" only to "accidentally" destroy it. Or Fabio looking up during a slightly too-long bit about O'Brien looking cool driving his '92 Taurus around L.A., saying "I wish I could have a Taurus (my surprise: That Fabio isn't back to driving one already).

Here's the whole episode below:


Sole sit-down guest Will Ferrell was funny, in a twitchy kind of way -- another lesson, two guests a night may work best.

Entering on a seat carried aloft by four men, Egyptian-style, Ferrell advised O'Brien that in Los Angeles, "you're allowed to borrow (a policeman's) gun for a day" just before urging Tony voters that a ballot for rival Liza Minnelli was "like urinating on the flag."

Even musical guest Pearl Jam felt a little tentative until they hit a groove about halfway through their new song, Get Some. Perhaps it's just me, but I can't wait until O'Brien is comfortable enough to unleash real chestnuts like Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, the Clutch Cargo-style celebrity interviews and "In the Year 3000" -- silly, side-splitting stuff that seems the epitome of humor some critics fear will lose the Tonight Show's ratings lead.

I'm not so sure. My hunch, is that a relaxed, confident O'Brien is going to make some pretty compelling television. Just not completely on his first night.


[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:58pm]


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