By Tom Shales
Thursday, May 28, 2009; C01
It's tempting to look upon Conan O'Brien's ascent to "The Tonight Show" as a new chapter in the saga "Conan Grows Up." If Conan grew up, however, he wouldn't be Conan. And he probably wouldn't be ascending to "The Tonight Show," taking over Monday from Jay Leno, who will move to prime time in the fall.
As host of NBC's most venerable entertainment series, O'Brien becomes a combination figurehead and mascot -- honorary captain of the Good Ship Peacock. It's a ship that happens to be, at the moment, a little leaky.
Folks at NBC are understandably nervous about the transition, with the possible exception of the 6-foot-3, red-haired star himself. It seems he can't wait to get underway.
"It's all about firing up this giant cruise ship that's never been fired up before," says Conan by phone from his new office on the Universal lot in Los Angeles -- picking up the nautical metaphor but applying it to "The Tonight Show," not the network. "I have a tendency in my career to jump into the deep end and see what happens."
"The Tonight Show" is arguably more important than ever -- not only because it brings in hundreds of millions in annual revenue, but also because it's the network standard-bearer, NBC-owned and -produced. Leno's ratings have been high, and Conan is considered riskier, his material and his sensibilities less mainstream. In addition to all that, ABC has been cranking out weekly press releases for months now with headlines like " 'Nightline' Beats 'Letterman' and 'Leno' " although only "Among Adults 25-54."
Conan knows there will be brickbats heaved his way. " 'The Tonight Show' is so much an American cultural institution," he says, "that I'm prepared for the fact that some people, just because I've been around for a long time and maybe it's generational, will accept us right away, but some people will think, 'This doesn't feel right with me.' Which is only natural; it won't feel right to everybody right away and how could it? Eleven-thirty at NBC has been dominant since the early 1950s, and such a touchstone.
"And it's such a personal thing: You're coming into people's homes and so, suddenly, you create a certain rhythm and feel. Johnny Carson did, and I'm sure it was difficult for Jay." And now "Jay's been there so long, and suddenly people tune in and this carrot-headed Bob's Big Boy is jumping around, and I wouldn't blame people for saying, 'This doesn't feel right to me' right away. My hope is that that period won't last too long."
The story of how O'Brien came to take over "Tonight" is well known and fraught with complication.
"The thing about this is," Conan recalls, "I feel like five years ago, when they called me and asked me 'Would you like to host "The Tonight Show" five years from now?' I said, 'Sure, that would be fine.' And Jay called me and congratulated me and talked about it in a very nice way on his show that night. So I always felt I was aboveboard about everything."
But then, as the date grew nearer, Leno began making noises, and jokes, about the weirdness of a network ousting someone who's No. 1 in his time period. NBC executives may have suffered traumatic deja vu back to 1991, when Leno vied noisily with David Letterman to succeed industry giant Carson, a struggle that became an embarrassing mess.
Leno got "The Tonight Show," and a bitter Letterman went to CBS and "The Late Show." Carson let it be known that he was on Letterman's side and even appeared, ghostlike, on Letterman's show.
Just when it looked as though a blood bath like the Incredible Imbroglio of 1991 might take place, NBC revealed a jaw-dropping resolution: It announced that as of next season, Leno would not be leaving the network after all, and would not be starting a new late-night show on any other network. Instead, he would helm a new comedy-variety show built for him and airing at 10 each weeknight. Conan presents himself as greatly relieved: "The good thing for me is that that was amicably resolved." (Conan will be a guest on Leno's final "Tonight Show" tomorrow.)
There is one complication: At 11:35, Conan will now be competing against his longtime comedy idol, Letterman.
"There's a period in your life where you can be influenced in a way -- there's a window of opportunity that opens when you're about 16, and the music you hear then and the comedians that you see then are very important to you," Conan says. "I had that period in my life. When I was 18 years old, Dave started doing his morning show on NBC, and that was the age when I was just obsessed with comedy. So I 'absorbed' David Letterman at that time."
And now here they'll be, going head-to-head. "I'm just going to pretend it's not true for as long as possible," Conan says. "I don't think I'm going to take anything away from Dave. We're very different people, and I don't think anyone who's a loyal Dave-watcher is going to decide to start watching me. I think I have to find my own people -- people who are probably meth addicts, come to think of it, in an alley somewhere right now huffing glue."
O'Brien, perhaps surprisingly to his youngest fans, had a tough time getting "absorbed" when he started his show in 1993. As a writer on "Saturday Night Live," most of his performing experience was in entertaining the staff at meetings. "When I started out on 'Late Night,' I'd been a comedy writer for so long that I thought 'the idea' was the most important thing in humor," Conan recalls. "I really did. But I learned the hard way, over time, that I had to let myself come out and that that's what draws people in. You can't just run a comedy lab every night. People want some sense of who you are as a person."
At least twice, he came perilously close to termination by the network. Meanwhile, to the delight of Executive Producer Jeff Ross (a man rarely caught laughing), Conan grew increasingly comfortable in the nonscripted parts of the show. "I found I really liked the cooking segments and the animal segments, because they really allow you to cut loose," Conan says. "If we had Martha Stewart on cooking with me, and there was a chemistry there, I knew it would be a little different, and I felt like I was just playing. There's no jokes you have to get to. It's just trying to cook flan with Martha Stewart, and it will be funny. And she will yell at me and beat me with a wooden spoon -- which is very erotic, by the way."
The best recurring bits, delivered from behind the desk, are what Conan calls "joke-delivery systems." The "tried-and-true ones, like 'the year 2000,' are just good joke-delivery systems and they just work," he says. "When NBC bought Telemundo, we started doing a soap opera, all in Spanish, where I play 'Conando,' and it's got a silliness to it that makes it funny. If the fake mustache falls off, it's funny and when it stays on, it's funny.
"I always liked that Johnny Carson clearly liked dressing up as Floyd R. Turbo. He didn't become less cool to me when he dressed as Aunt Blabby, or whoever. He was clearly having fun. He was doing something that he enjoyed -- and we enjoyed it with him."
One argument advanced against Letterman when he went after Carson's job was that Letterman's comedy was too "special," too eclectic, for the earlier audience. Sure enough, some people are saying that now about Conan, his bag of dada-esque tricks and his flock of crazed continuing characters: Evil Puppy, Vomiting Kermit (who's had too much tequila), the Masturbating Bear, a friendly and sentimental Frankenstein and, of course, writer-performer Robert Smigel's brilliantly irreverent puppet, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who got his start sniffing around at New York's annual Westminster dog show and has since reported from far-flung fun spots.
Conan says Triumph and a few of the old characters will be back for occasional visits, but he doesn't want viewers thinking they're merely seeing "Late Night" an hour earlier. And those notions that the Conan style is too "special" for the earlier hour and might have to fight the fit at first? "I think there's something to that," he jokes, "just because for the first time I'll be watched by people who are fully awake. I've never experienced that before."
The new venue, Los Angeles instead of New York, will definitely affect the show's style and content. "We have completely sold our souls," Conan jokes -- then says seriously: "I think initially it will have a lot of impact, because initially we're part of the story. I'm so familiar to people as this New York presence and now I'll be in L.A. and we'll be very much inspired by what's around us. I think the show will begin with us commenting on the fact that we're in Los Angeles and there's this huge cultural shift."
Much of Conan's old Rockefeller Center office, including his exhaustive collection of old TV-tie-in toys and games, has been transported to his new digs on the Universal lot. This also includes his "hideous gray metal desk," he says, which "looks like something Jimmy Olsen would have had on the original set of 'Superman.' " As for the rest of the room, "it's the same office as New York except there's a palm tree outside the window. Actually, we brought that back from New York, too; it was growing on 49th Street."
The show is on Stage 1 at Universal, where Jack Benny filmed one of his series. It's also where "Knight Rider" was shot in the '80s, O'Brien says: "They needed a lot of extra room for Hasselhoff's ego."
Max Weinberg, O'Brien's versatile band leader (when he's not on the road with Bruce Springsteen as the E Street Band's drummer) will, fortunately, continue with the host. Over the years, Weinberg has also morphed into a super-straight man for sketches and bits. In addition, O'Brien has reached back in time to retrieve Andy Richter, the original sidekick who left "Late Night" in 2000 for what turned out to be leaner pastures. He will be back -- not as a sidekick, NBC says, but as a repertory player in sketches and recurring bits.
These, then, are the awesome responsibilities of Conan O'Brien: to uphold or improve upon the solid ratings that Leno earned; to keep the demographic young, or make it still younger; to defeat a fellow comic whom he has long envied and admired; to impress viewers with a show that feels new and fresh but also familiar and comfortingly recognizable; and to be cleverly innovative in a genre that's been around since the primeval antecedent to television was being carved into rocks with other rocks.
O'Brien might have one more advantage over the other guys. Tall, lean and, in some bland and anonymous way, handsome, he may be the talk-show host most attractive to women. "Why don't you just write that I am, and we'll see if we can get this thing going," O'Brien says with false modesty. If he saves NBC from the jaws of death, or at least from the bungling of the network's own executives, and keeps "The Tonight Show" the blazing success it was under Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Carson and Leno, any kind of modesty may start to sound ridiculous.