June 2, 2009 / 8:35 AM / 10 years ago

O'Brien's "Tonight Show" a work in progress

Host Conan O'Brien gestures onstage during the 58th annual Primetime Emmy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in this August 27, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Mike Blake/Files

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - An English friend of mine got his first dose of Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien last week, and commented that while Jay seemed friendly and confident, his “Tonight Show” replacement was more of a cipher. He wondered, “Do you think O’Brien will fit in?”

That’s the multimillion-dollar question. O’Brien has only taken over shows, and never originated his own. He spent 16 years remaking David Letterman’s “Late Night” into his own comedic image, but this time, he’s walking into an institution. NBC’s “Tonight” is bigger than O’Brien, which means he’s got to conform to expectations — while trying to give it his imprimatur.

After one show, let’s say he’s a work in progress. O’Brien’s debut appearance Monday opened up with a segment in which he ran cross-country from New York (“Late Night’s” home) to the brand-new Universal Studios stage in Hollywood — a more expansive place than his previous digs. The layout fits traditional “Tonight” templates, but the new set is shaped by wavy arcs which, along with the redesigned show logo, call to mind a retro look, as if 30 Rock’s art deco design was also transplanted.

It was a debut episode designed for those with ADD: O’Brien’s monologue included video gags on political figures, a paean to his 1992 Ford Taurus, his nosebleed seats at the Lakers game, and a stint guiding the Universal Studios Tour. When not immersed in pretaped segments (which may have been piled on in case the new host needed a hand), O’Brien commanded the stage, but seemed more comfortable laughing it up with erstwhile sidekick-turned-announcer Andy Richter than interacting with his 380 audience members. The band, led by Max Weinberg, got barely a nod.

Will Ferrell was a safe choice as a guest; he almost made O’Brien superfluous as he took over the house and deadpanned his way through the segment. For his part, O’Brien was chatty enough, but seemed relieved that no serious questioning would be required. Pearl Jam appeared briefly, debuting a new song that sounded oddly echoey in their rounded chamber, but were not invited to sit down.

Comparisons are inevitable at this stage between O’Brien and his predecessor — both of whom were East Coast natives. O’Brien may never be the friendly, chuckling joke-teller guiding audiences through the late hours that Leno was; his persona has long focused on himself as rube and put-upon straight man, with jokes that tend to come with surreal, pointed edges. That will make this version of “Tonight” different, no matter how well the ratings go.

Ferrell was joking when he said it, but he was right on the money when he commented that the suits backstage were fidgety. “This whole thing’s a crapshoot at best,” he told O’Brien, then sang “Never Can Say Goodbye,” just in case things didn’t pan out.

But it’s likely they will. There’s an intelligence behind O’Brien’s shtick, a wry knowingness that might be a bit much for traditional audiences — but which works with the attentive, devoted gaggle of fans he’s been developing since 1993. In a sense, it was all there in the first few minutes, as O’Brien’s run across the country was accompanied by an old Cheap Trick song, “Surrender,” which goes, “Mommy’s all right, Daddy’s all right, they just seem a little weird / Surrender, surrender, but don’t give yourself away.”

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