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

Conan O'Brien takes over Jay Leno's late night comedy legacy Monday.

ByMarco R. della Cava, USA TODAY
May 29, 2009, 4:25 PM

May 31, 2009 — -- 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.

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.

"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.

He has spent more time preparing in his cavernous studio with his staff than in his expansive new home in tony Brentwood with his wife, Liza, and two kids, Neve, 5, and Beckett, 3.

"'The Tonight Show' means everything to me," O'Brien says, noting he used to watch Carson with his father. "I'll have good moments and bad, but I'll keep coming at it."

O'Brien "has the summer to establish himself," says Bill Carter, author of "The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno and the Network Battle for the Night," which chronicled the jockeying for Carson's throne that led to tension between Leno and Letterman.

Carter adds that O'Brien should not expect to match Leno's ratings, "but Conan has a loyal, younger core audience that he can work on expanding."

Few expect the general appeal of either NBC star to change. Leno, who consistently won the ratings battle against Letterman's "Late Show" on CBS, is known for attracting an older audience than O'Brien.

Leno also routinely pulled larger audiences, averaging just more than 5 million viewers a night this season compared with O'Brien's 1.9 million in the following hour, according to Nielsen.

"These shows are consistent and their content is safe, if not particularly buzzworthy," says Sam Armando, director of audience analysis for Starcom Worldwide, a Chicago-based media agency. "You're not going to get a huge bump (in viewership) the way you would with a hit scripted show or an 'American Idol,' but the flip side is that you know exactly who's watching."

Armando says O'Brien isn't likely to change his style much.

"He's been popular for many years doing what he does, so it wouldn't make sense for NBC to ask him to switch things up," he says. "They'll welcome a slightly younger audience to The Tonight Show that will keep growing up with Conan. Then there's (Jimmy) Fallon (who took over O'Brien's "Late Night") helping bring in the new young crowd. And the best part is, NBC doesn't have to worry about competing with Jay on another channel."

O'Brien isn't worrying specifically about Leno. He's worrying about everything.

"At 4 a.m., I do wake up sometimes and go, 'Oh my God, it's The Tonight Show,' " he says, draped across a chair in his office, a few feet away from a Martin acoustic and a Gretsch electric guitar that help him unwind. "But nothing funny comes out of reverence. I'll take care of this franchise. The key is to put aside the fear and say, 'Let's just make some people laugh.' "

That comes easily for O'Brien, who during an hour-long conversation riffs on L.A. car culture ("I'd like to walk to work like I did in New York, but we'd do like one show a week"), his passion for the Military Channel ("My wife always wants to unwind and watch comedies, but I need to see how forensic scientists have found new clues to the Battle of the Bulge") and the future of TV.

"The show I do on June 1 is likely to be totally different from the one we do six months later," he says. In today's fragmented viewing world, "everything's changing. It's crazy. That's why I'm just going to stick with what makes me smile."

How long does he envision hosting this show?

"Until I'm 160, because there will be medical advancements," he says. "Fallon will take over for me when I retire at 108 to travel with my family. But it won't be Jimmy, it'll be his brain in a jar."

Memories of Carson

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.

"My wife, she says, 'God help us all if there's a time when you don't have a show.' And my (physician) father says, 'You're making a living off of something that probably should be treated.' It's just my nature not to celebrate things, but rather treat them like I've just been given this huge responsibility. So if anything, I like to save those 'Yippee!' moments for the camera."

Those moments are nearing. Helping share the spotlight for O'Brien's debut as host of The Tonight Show will be the band Pearl Jam and his friend Ferrell. That'll help ease the nerves. But it won't erase O'Brien's comedy-generating angst.

How deep does it go? He'll gladly demonstrate.

"Come this way," he says, rising from his office chair. A few long strides later, O'Brien wheels into his dressing room, a nondescript box save for a large, black-and-white framed etching that hangs on one wall.

In it, a group of men gather around a dead President Lincoln.

"I've always practiced my monologue in front of this image before going on stage," O'Brien says. "Looking at that, I figure, heck, it could always be worse."

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