Conan O'Brien Brings a New Vibe to 'The Tonight Show'

At a wispy 6-foot-4, Conan O'Brien doesn't walk so much as glide.

So with what seems like only a few strides, he's out of his guitar-and-memorabilia-decorated office, through a hallway, across a back lot and on his new "Tonight Show" set here at Universal Studios.

"This is the man," O'Brien says with a Superman tone, grasping the shoulder of a bemused Bob Dickinson, one of Hollywood's top lighting directors. "The new show may end up being terrible, but I guarantee you it'll be the best-looking terrible you've ever seen."

The quip says everything about how O'Brien will approach his tenure, beginning Monday at 11:35 p.m. ET/PT, as host of NBC's vaunted late-night staple. The man who brought TV viewers Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and Will Ferrell doing a striptease as a leprechaun plans to remain true to his offbeat and irreverent style.

VIDEO: Jay Leno is about to wrap up his 17-year run at The Tonight Show.
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Meanwhile, he'll try to burnish a jewel he has coveted since childhood: the talk-show hosting gig held most famously by Johnny Carson and most recently by Jay Leno, whose run ends tonight with O'Brien as a guest.

O'Brien's new home, on a studio lot a short drive from "The Tonight Show's" longtime Burbank digs, typifies the off-center humor that made O'Brien, 46, a star after his rocky start replacing David Letterman on NBC's "Late Night" in 1993.

His new set's quirky hallmarks include a band backdrop featuring the Empire State Building planted in the Hollywood hills and a striking art deco frieze in which is hidden a drawing of an Arby's counter jockey.

It's part of a design that recalls Carson's 30-year run on "The Tonight Show," with the host desk and guest couch far left as viewed from the audience, band far right and an epic arc of a curtain in the center.

Conan OBrien
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"My set needs to acknowledge this is a 60-year franchise," O'Brien says. "It needs to be beautiful and elegant. Jerry Seinfeld once said to me, 'The Tonight Show should always feel like the headquarters for show business.' "

In 1993, critics and viewers weren't sure that O'Brien belonged in the talk-show building, let alone that he could be a candidate for the CEO slot. But after 16 years of Late Night duty, few can argue he hasn't earned comedy's corner office.

"I'm glad it's going to Conan. It couldn't go to a better person," says Leno, who launches a revamped nightly talk show at 10 p.m. for NBC in September. "We're friends, and it's a really smooth transition."

Not that Leno is leaving without some regret.

"The Tonight Show is the America's Cup of television," Leno says. "You don't want to be the guy to screw it up."

O'Brien is ready, says Lorne Michaels, the NBC producer whose sanity was questioned 16 years ago when he suggested that a pale, red-haired, 29-year-old comedy writer with a few seasons of "Saturday Night Live" and "The Simpsons" under his belt could replace Letterman.

"The Late Night stage was getting too small for Conan," says Michaels, adding that O'Brien's move from New York to Los Angeles "will give Conan a much bigger platform to do his thing." Pause. "He just needs to stay out of the sun."

Plenty of prep time

O'Brien, a native of Massachusetts, says there's "something inherently funny about me being in L.A., and hey, we're doing a comedy show." For now, however, he isn't venturing much beyond his air-conditioned haunts.

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