When Jay Leno took over The Tonight Show from Johnny Carson in 1992, the transition was fraught with tension, and the backstage drama was often far more interesting than what made it to the airwaves. Leno’s conflict with David Letterman over who would be Carson’s heir resulted in a book and a bitingly satirical made-for-HBO movie, both called The Late Shift, and ended up reflecting poorly on both hosts. On his first episode of Tonight, Leno made no mention of Carson, the man who’d held his job for 30 years, so desperate was he to prove his own worthiness.
Seventeen years later, the Tonight Show transition from Leno to Conan O’Brien has been a perfectly stage-managed production, with the incoming host sitting down with his predecessor as the final guest on Leno’s version of the show, and explicitly thanking Leno in his own first episode. O’Brien was announced as the new Tonight Show host nearly five years ago, and his ascension has seemed inevitable since long before then, once he passed out of his awkward initial phase as host of the Tonight Show-following Late Night and carved out his own niche of odd characters, recurring bits and a fidgety, self-deprecating charm.
- The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien
Happily, pretty much all of that has carried over to The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien (NBC, weeknights, 11:35 p.m.), basically a shiny upgrade of O’Brien’s tried-and-true Late Night shtick. That’s great news for O’Brien’s many fans, although it may not be great news for NBC’s big Tonight Show hopes; one of the reasons that Leno was able to consistently beat rival David Letterman (whose Late Show airs at the same time on CBS) was that he was unassuming and inoffensive, telling the kind of jokes your grandma could appreciate and anyone else could shrug off. In its first week, O’Brien’s Tonight Show has yet to be as willfully weird as Late Night could be (no masturbating bear or horny manatee yet), but it has retained O’Brien’s off-kilter sense of humor and tendency to be funnier when undermining his own jokes than when telling them.
Slightly more audience-friendly segments like “In the Year 2000” (now updated as “In the Year 3000”) and “Celebrity Survey” have shown up more or less intact, and presumably O’Brien will roll out more of his greatest hits as time goes on. Disappointingly, one classic Late Night element that was probably most anticipated to appear on Tonight turns out to be seriously underused—the return of former O’Brien sidekick Andy Richter, who left Late Night in 2000 and here returns as announcer. Stuck standing behind a podium, Richter has minimal interaction with O’Brien, and after the monologue, he basically just fades into the background. Someone of Richter’s comedic talent deserves better than to just read the names of the guests during the show’s intro, and Tonight's biggest failing so far is in wasting such a strong asset.
For the most part, O’Brien seems pretty relaxed taking on such a high-profile gig; after all, he’s had 16 years of experience at this, unlike his Late Night replacement, Jimmy Fallon, who’s still uncomfortable in his new role. The only hint of desperation is O’Brien’s repeated emphasis on his unfamiliarity with his new LA home (Late Night is taped in New York City), which is repetitive at best and pathetic at worst. He’s good enough at what he does that he doesn’t need to pander to Californians—or to Leno fans, for that matter. It may take a little getting used to, but even your grandma will probably embrace this weird, funny guy in the end.