Last Monday night, television entered a new era. For only the fifth time in its 55-year history, NBC’s “The Tonight Show” acquired a new host. With the expiration of Jay Leno’s contract, “Late Night” host Conan O’Brien has assumed the seat he’s coveted for decades. Leno, of course, is getting upgraded to prime time, hosting his “Jay Leno Show” in NBC’s 9 p.m. slot five nights a week starting Sept. 14. But for now, it’s all O’Brien’s spotlight.
When he first took over David Letterman’s old spot on “Late Night,” I can’t say I was all that smitten with O’Brien. He’s a brilliant writer, having shepherded “The Simpsons” and “Saturday Night Live” through some of their best episodes. But as a talk show host, I found his nervous reliance on non sequiter catchphrases (“Hello, my babies.”) and his taste for absurdist sketch comedy (The Masturbating Bear) more quizzical than edgy. Nonetheless, the man attracted a loyal audience on those late-night airwaves.
Now, with his assumption of the “Tonight Show” throne, he’s inherited a considerably larger audience. The question is, after 17 years of falling asleep to Jay Leno, will that larger (and by demographic numbers, more mainstream) audience take a shine to the redheaded funnyman?
O’Brien’s first night on the job went about as well as could be expected. He kept Robot on a Toilet and S&M Lincoln hidden in the closet and went with safe bits about running across America and joshing with tourists on the Universal Studios tour. He shared some laughs with first guest Will Ferrell, he heaped praise on musical guest Pearl Jam, he engaged in stiff banter with new/old announcer Andy Richter. The set was, you know, a set. It had a desk, a couch and a big, light-up model of the city in the background. All in all, it seemed like your standard night of post-prime time TV.
Of course, that may be the problem. Without his weird, anti-hipster edge, O’Brien is just another dude in a tie making jokes about Bill Clinton’s libido. (It’s large, by the way.) Andy Richter (the best part of Conan’s early “Late Night” days) should be on the couch, Ed McMahon-style, and not stuck behind a podium. Ferrell’s popular, but he’ll be on every talk show in creation this week pimping his new film Land of the Lost. Pearl Jam seems like a big “get” but would have been much more impressive if the calendar read 1993.
Let’s face it, we live in an era when useless, do-nothing nobodies like Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag are hideously overexposed. There’s really no big whoop about seeing Tom Hanks or Ryan Seacrest or (yawn) Gwyneth Paltrow get pitched a few softball questions. Thanks to TV Guide Network and Reelz and E! Entertainment Television, we can see that 24/7 on cable.
And, come September, NBC viewers will have the pleasure of wading through 3 1/2 hours’ worth of chat shows every weeknight on NBC (“The Jay Leno Show,” “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien,” “The Late Show With Jimmy Fallon” and “Last Call With Carson Daly”). Tragically, O’Brien may be offering too little too late to make much of an impact in this game.