By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2009; C01
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 to see Conan O'Brien devoting the entire first half of his first "Tonight Show" on Monday to himself.
The opening-night guest, Will Ferrell, didn't walk onstage until 10 minutes past midnight, after a long parade of taped segments starring the new host.
Preliminary "overnight" ratings indicate, though, that O'Brien knew what he was doing. NBC crowed yesterday that in Nielsen's 56 "metered markets," O'Brien scored a 7.1 rating, well over what a typical "Tonight Show" has done recently, and handily beat David Letterman's "Late Show" on CBS for the night.
NBC called Conan's the best overnights for a Monday "Tonight" show since Jan. 24, 2005, when former host Jay Leno offered a tribute to his predecessor, Johnny Carson. Helped by the fact that many more people watch TV at 11:35 p.m. Eastern time than at 12:35 a.m., when O'Brien's "Late Show" aired, his audience was 173 percent larger than the last "Late Show" he hosted, on Feb. 20.
The real ratings story, of course, won't be known until O'Brien has logged a few weeks in his spiffy, swanky new setting. After a bumpy, trouble-plagued start, Leno kept "The Tonight Show" No. 1 in late night for most of his 17 years as host.
Ferrell didn't really walk onstage, 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 surefire guest; he can turn weak material inside out and find silver linings in the darkest places.
By the time Ferrell finally appeared, many viewers may already have had their fill of O'Brien, who has gone from being the proprietor of an endearingly zany curiosity shop -- "Late Night" -- 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 -- but not all. He still comes across as an earnestly likable goof, and though hardly a comedy monologuist of Leno's skill, he has a skewed sensibility that is unlike any other TV host's. He just shouldn't spread himself so thick.
Before the opening credits, O'Brien starred in a clever and elaborate taped routine in which he moved from New York to Los Angeles on foot. Through the magic of 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 had 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 to the shiny-shiny floor of his new TV home to an arduously lengthy ovation from the audience -- 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 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 Studios tour and made wisecracks for the tourists riding along. About midnight, O'Brien paid tribute to Leno, calling him "a true gentleman" and "a very gracious man."
Ferrell facetiously campaigned for a Tony Award (he is nominated for his satiric portrayal of George W. Bush) by calling Liza Minnelli, nominated in the same category, "a communist." He also referred to her as a "red menace" -- perhaps not knowing that Minnelli starred in a Broadway show called "Flora the Red Menace" in 1965 -- and won a Tony for it. Just a bit of theatrical trivia, folks.
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 that 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 co-stars.
As a sweet grace note, the program was preceded by the old animated NBC peacock fanfare, first introduced in the 1950s to hype the sale of color television sets by then-owner RCA Victor. "The Tonight Show" really is a part of Americana, and O'Brien should remember it has a higher purpose than advancing careers and enlarging fortunes. It's there to send America to bed happy.
That may be more important now than during any other prolonged period of misfortune and hardship, so the sooner O'Brien stops introducing himself and starts telling funny jokes, the better.