O'Brien's horizon-straight delivery is reminiscent of Carson, who seems to remain to "The Tonight Show" what Sean Connery is to James Bond actors: the gold standard.
Which reminds the lanky, Harvard-educated O'Brien of a story.
"We were putting together a best-of program about "The Tonight Show" (in 2001), and I had to call Johnny to see if it all looked OK to him," O'Brien says, relishing the memory.
"He said he liked it, but he didn't like the part where I, on camera, called him the gold standard. I immediately reminded him that in the past years, gold had become seriously devalued." Pause. Smile. "He liked that."
Carson looms large in O'Brien's mind these days. He frequently flashes back to a conversation the two had just weeks before Carson died in 2005. "He said, 'You'll have good shows and bad shows, but in the end they'll break in your favor. So just be yourself.' "
O'Brien won't say what aspects of his "Late Night" show will make their way west. "I hate to say, 'No, absolutely not.' "
So, will his Masturbating Bear be "Tonight Show" worthy?
"Look, it's a physical act many think is healthy. And bears, they're a wonderful part of our heritage," he says, deadpan. "But will you see him the first night out? Not likely."
One blast from the past who will be on hand is Andy Richter, who was hired as a writer for "Late Night" and then elevated to sidekick status. Richter left in 2000 to pursue TV and movie opportunities. He returns as O'Brien's announcer.
"Maybe this is what I'm really meant to be: Conan's Ed McMahon," Richter says, adding that he and O'Brien have remained close. "It's pretty much the same: He worries too much and I worry too little. We do, however, have a healthier perspective now. We're older and have kids."
Richter says he's unsure of his role on the new show. He has a podium from which to announce guests. Sometimes he'll sit next to O'Brien, "but mostly I'll go back to my podium." He says he's proud of his friend, at the same time shocked and unfazed by O'Brien's rise to the top of the talk show mountain.
"I have complete faith in his talent that he'll make this work," he says. "But when I think about the people before him, (Steve) Allen, (Jack) Paar, then I go, 'Wait, I know Conan O'Brien. This can't be right, because I don't know any historical figures.' I guess it's a little like being friends with Obama."
As new host of "The Tonight Show," O'Brien is about to become the toast of L.A., which is different from being the talk of N.Y. New Yorkers revel in not caring who you are, and Angelinos love celebrating celebrities.
O'Brien hopes only the show's inherent cachet may land him a few guests that have proven elusive; Woody Allen ("A writer who became a performer, a real inspiration") is at the top of that short list. But, he insists, he won't go Hollywood. "I bring my misery with me," he says, running a hand through his Bob's Big Boy hair. "My self-loathing and anguish are well-earned. At this point, 71-degree weather every day is not going to make me feel better about myself."
That anguish generates pure work, which he adores.