Assessing Conan's 'Tonight Show' Debut After 16 years as the host of the Late Night show, Conan O'Brien moves his act an hour earlier. TV critic David Bianculli reviews O'Brien's premiere as host of The Tonight Show.

Assessing Conan's 'Tonight Show' Debut

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Last night, Conan O'Brien made his debut as the host of "The Tonight Show." So how did he do? Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Tonight Show")

Mr. CONAN O'BRIEN (Host, "The Tonight Show"): Ladies and gentleman welcome to "The Tonight Show" with Conan O'Brien. Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. O'BRIEN: Thank you. Yeah, I have to admit, I think, I have timed this moment perfectly. Think about it: I'm on a last place network, I move to a state that's bankrupt and tonight's show is sponsored by General Motors.

(Soundbite of applause)

DAVID BIANCULLI: Outside of the reference to General Motors, Conan O'Brien didn't do any topical humor in his first monologue as host of NBC's "Tonight Show." He didn't need to. He was the big story of the day. After 16 years as the host of the 12:30 Eastern Time "Late Night" show, as the replacement for David Letterman, Conan was now moving to 11:30, and from New York to Los Angeles, to replace Jay Leno. As TV goes, this was a very orderly transition of power. Conan had appeared as a guest on Jay's last show and Conan expressed thanks to Jay last night on his first show.

Conan also brought along Max Weinberg and company — who now get to call themselves The Tonight Show Band — and re-hired Andy Richter, who had been Conan's Late Night sidekick when they started back in 1993. Andy is an announcer now, but their relationship is the same. They still laugh the hardest at offhand remarks the studio audience doesn't seem to catch. So how was the first installment of this new "Tonight Show"? You can judge only so much from an initial outing, but first impressions do count, and they often turn out to be accurate.

When Jimmy Fallon took over for Conan earlier this year, the first edition of his "Late Night" suggested that he was smart for hiring The Roots as his house band, but barely competent at delivering a monologue or interviewing a guest. More than a month later, that's still true. Conan's another matter. A lot of discussion before last night, centered on how much of his "Late Night" attitude and humor he could bring with him. For example, would Triumph the Insult Comic Dog work an hour earlier? Of course he will.

Triumph is one of the funniest weapons in Conan's arsenal. But Conan has to woo the old "Tonight Show" viewers first, the ones who have found Jay's nonthreatening humor preferable to David Letterman's more caustic style over at CBS. That's why likable Will Ferrell was last night's only sit-down guest, and why tonight's guest is the super-likable Tom Hanks. Come on folks, Conan is saying, if these guys like me, how bad can I be? The Conan who was on his best behavior last night wasn't that memorable, but wasn't trying to be.

He was establishing a new baseline — new set, new logistics, slightly new behavior — like a kid finally moving up to the adult table at Thanksgiving. The set is a lot classier and respecting the "Tonight Show" tradition, Conan has started out that way too. But not completely — because another part of the "Tonight Show" tradition, going all the way back to original host Steve Allen, is what Conan does best. It's getting outside the studio, interacting with real people, and improvising. And now that Conan is playing in a new sandbox, right on the Universal lot, some really funny material is only a tour-guide tram away.

Here he is, commandeering a Universal tram from a tour guide named Drew, and serving as an unofficial co-host. Drew points out various studio attractions and landmarks, and tries to play it straight. But when Conan sees the flash floods from "Earthquake," he gets very emotional. And when he sees a Norman Bates look-alike stuffing a corpse into a car trunk outside the house from "Psycho," he gets very critical.

(Soundbite of TV Show, "The Tonight Show")

(Soundbite of applause)

DREW (Tour Guide): We're just going to do a little weather demonstration, we got thunder, we got lightning and we have rain.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Oh my God.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. O'BRIEN: Oh God, why, Drew, why? Ladies and gentlemen, that was either a flash flood or the Octomom's water just broke.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. O'BRIEN: That's some good stuff, people. That's some good stuff. Let's just keep going in circles, just keep driving - can you keep driving in circles?

(Soundbite of cheering)

DREW: We have two of the most legendary sets in Hollywood: the Bates Motel and the original "Psycho" house. Uh oh, there's Norman Bates right there.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Now why do that in broad daylight?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'BRIEN: I'm just curious, is it me or is that just bad planning? If you're a criminal you want to do that at--

DREW: He spotted us. He's spotted us.

Mr. O'BRIEN: He's unhappy, he didn't think anyone would see him in a theme park in broad daylight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'BRIEN: Oh no. No. No, it's too hot for corduroy. Wear a light poplin or a linen, and commit the crimes at night!

BIANCULLI: My guess is that Conan will do fine in the short run, and hold the audience he has inherited — just as Jimmy Fallon has in Conan's old time slot. But that's the short run. Fortunes in late night TV — and believe me, fortunes are at stake here, because "The Tonight Show" is one of NBC's biggest profit centers — are decided not by short sprints, but by grueling marathons. When Dave Letterman, upset at not getting "The Tonight Show" when Johnny Carson retired, moved to CBS, he won the late night battle for a while.

Then Jay Leno did that Hugh Grant interview about the hooker, opened with one perfectly phrased question — what the hell were you thinking? — and he led in late night ever since. Now that it's Conan versus Dave in a head-to-head battle, there may be an incremental shift. The big question, though, is what happens this fall, when Jay returns to NBC in a nightly primetime slot. How will that affect network TV in general, and "The Tonight Show" in particular? If Jay succeeds, other networks will copy his success and scripted dramas and comedies on broadcast TV will all but vanish.

If Jay fails, he may take the ratings for NBC's local news affiliates and the ratings for "The Tonight Show" down with him. Either way, when you think about it, there's no happy ending. The only good news is that "The Tonight Show," for now, is in very capable hands.

GROSS: David Bianculli writes for the Web site and teaches at Rowan University. I'm Terry Gross.

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