NEW YORK (Reuters) - Former "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien's return to television with a new late night program drew strong viewership but mixed reviews from critics on Tuesday who said its same old late-night talk format failed to inspire them.
O'Brien's new show "Conan," which premiered on Monday on cable network TBS, marked the once-embattled talk show host's return to U.S. TV after he was ousted from the coveted hosting duties on NBC's "The Tonight Show" in January and was replaced with its former star, comedian Jay Leno.
Sporting a trimmed beard, O'Brien drew some praise for his opening monologue, even though critics noted the 47-year-old predictably focused on his departure from NBC.
The move from broadcaster NBC which reaches a wide audience to TBS that caters to a more narrow group of viewers is widely seen as a step down in audience size, and O'Brien sarcastically joked that he had always dreamed of being a talk show host on cable TV "ever since I was 46."
Still, O'Brien's fans turned out in solid numbers. "Conan" was watched by 4.1 million total viewers, TBS said. Some 2.4 million were 18-34 years-old, confirming his appeal to younger viewers. Leno, by contrast, has been averaging 3.6 million total viewers this season so far, according to NBC.
"Conan delivered an extraordinary audience and stands out as the youngest late-night talk show on television," said Steve Koonin, president of TBS parent Turner Entertainment Networks.
Critics, however, were less than enthusiastic. Showbiz newspaper Daily Variety said while the opening jab at his former network was "funny stuff," O'Brien would do well in the future to "avoid looking like an object of self-pity."
"Once he got past the opening, very little in the premiere could be called inspired," Daily Variety said.
The New York Times said while O'Brien "seemed in good form and high spirits, it was hard to tell from that one night how his cable show would differ from his previous perches." The newspaper critic noted the opening was akin to an extended TV version of O'Brien's recent 32-city, live stage show.
Like Daily Variety, the Times also said the self-pitying jokes about his "Tonight Show" debacle sometimes came off as self-indulgent. "The show is called 'Conan' but it felt at times like it should be labeled 'I'm Not Jay,' the Times said.
O'Brien's seven-month tenure at "The Tonight Show," ended in January amid weak ratings and a botched programing overhaul at NBC, which moved Leno to a new show at an earlier time. NBC had designated O'Brien as Leno's successor years earlier, but after several months as the "Tonight Show" host, the program's viewership sagged.
NBC canceled Leno's earlier program, moved him back to host of the "Tonight Show" and sent O'Brien packing. He eventually walked away with a $45 million exit deal and announced in April that he would launch a new show at TBS.
"Conan" followed a traditional format of delivering a monologue and one-liners to a studio audience, interviewing a pair of actors, Seth Rogen and Lea Michele, and ending with music. O'Brien played guitar and sang with White Stripes frontman Jack White.
The Los Angeles Times was more positive in its review, calling the show "promising, if not quite the fulfillment of his last wild nights at NBC, when caution was thrown to the wind" because O'Brien knew his days were numbered.
Other late night hosts weighed in on their new competition, including David Letterman and Jon Stewart of the "The Daily Show." But in the end, Jay Leno stayed silent.
Additional reporting by Jill Serjeant, editing by Bob Tourtellotte