Conan O’Brien was hot 10 years ago.
We know this because Entertainment Weekly, grand master of hotness, told us so:
“With his hilarious skits (take that, Letterman) and savvy repartee (eat his dust, Leno) ... Conan O’Brien has turned his once-languishing late-night lair into a Gen X goldmine,” began a not-impartial 1998 cover story.
We also know because there were a thousand other stories (we probably wrote one of them) that told us he was hot. Exactly why this was so wasn’t exactly clear - honestly, defining this is harder than it looks - but any guy who could cavort with a “Masturbating Bear” or a potty-mouthed puppet dog must have what it takes to succeed in late-night TV.
At its height, “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” was seen by an average 2.6 million people, which was a huge audience probably mostly comprising those aforementioned Gen X-ers. Emmys were conferred, and other honors bestowed. With exquisite timing, Conan began expressing restlessness to his NBC bosses, and, well, you know the rest of that story.
Then something happened. Maybe those grand masters moved on to some other hottie (Jon Stewart), or maybe everyone just got bored. But Conan slipped off his “hotness” throne and fell back to Earth, which is pretty much where he’ll be when his “Late Night” run ends Friday after 15 ½ years. (Jimmy Fallon takes over “Late Night” March 2.)
So: A good or bad thing for Conan on the eve of his next great adventure - taking over “The Tonight Show” come June 1?
Careful. The answer is tricky. When David Letterman assaulted CBS’ long-dormant 11:35 EST hour in 1992, he was hailed the conquering hero - that is, “hot.” When Jay Leno took over “Tonight,” he was deemed a dead duck - as in “cold.” Within a year, their competitive positions reversed. Leno has been late-night boss ever since, though the grandmasters haven’t taken much notice of that, either.
The lesson may be that the tortoise sometimes has the advantage over the hare in the late-night TV race and that Conan may be exactly where he wants to be. Hotness be damned.
But that, of course, hasn’t stopped the questions. There’s a nagging doubt that has been tugging at this transition for months now. Many people just don’t think it will work, and some of them may even be running NBC.
Signs of uneasiness? Take the future “Jay Leno Show,” debuting weeknights at 10 EST this fall. Fearful of losing him to a rival, most likely ABC, where he would savage the show he once hosted, NBC gave the store instead. Meanwhile, ABC - according to a recent report in The New York Times - is considering dumping “Nightline” for Jimmy Kimmel, in part because there’s a sense that the Conan-helmed “Tonight” will be vulnerable. And Letterman will shortly sign a new contract to stay on CBS for the same reason; for the first time in more than 15 years, Dave can actually smell first place.
How does Conan feel about all this? He has declined all interviews for this week’s transition, according to his spokesman, but at last month’s TV critics’ press tour, O’Brien, 45, observed that “a few people asked me, does this in any way diminish ‘The Tonight Show’? And my response is, ‘I don’t need any help diminishing ‘The Tonight Show.’ I’ve got that covered.”
Funny line. And then Conan got serious: “If you look at the history, there’s been speculation and probably some sense of uneasiness every time there’s been a change in a ‘Tonight Show’ host. ... If you look back at the history of the show changing from Steve Allen to Jack Paar or Paar to Carson, who had a very different style than Paar.
“What does this mean? Do I like this? People inherently don’t love change. I don’t love change you get used to it after a while. ... I don’t take (the criticism) personally.”
In fact, Conan’s ascendance is unusual, in part because he’s rarely appeared on “Tonight.” Carson had been a guest host during the Paar years, while Leno had appeared dozens of times on “Tonight” during Carson’s tenure. Other than in-show promotions on “Tonight,” the average “Tonight” viewer - middle-aged, living in the Heartland - may have scant knowledge of this 6-foot-4 Harvard-schooled redhead. And yes, that breeds uneasiness, too.
Who is Conan O’Brien and what sort of style will he bring to the most-storied franchise in American television? We’ll know four months from now, but, for the moment, clues abound. If you haven’t watched “Late Night” - ever - this is a good week to give it a try. (Hulu.com, the wonderful NBC/Fox online streaming service, will let you tune in any time of day.) What you will see is someone who has been blessedly unmarked by nearly 16 years in late-night: The carrot-colored pompadour and height remain as striking as ever, while the physical manner of someone who’s made of a Slinky toy rather than cartilage and bone hasn’t changed much, either.
He mounts a traditional talk show most nights - 10 minutes of monologue, skit, guest, musical guest. Long gone are most vestiges of the postmodern irony that got the grand masters at EW so excited 10 years ago. (That self-pleasuring bear? Out of work.) Conan’s monologue jokes are solid, smart, middle-of-the-road and topical (lots of stuff in recent weeks about TARP, for example.) Then, of course, there’s that ol’ self-deprecating manner. It’s Conan’s sleight of hand - his own calling card - to get you to like him.
At the press tour, he said, “I watched Johnny Carson host this show with my father when I was a kid, and we would laugh together. This is a very powerful thing for me. This has a lot of meaning for me. This is ...”
He seemed to forget what he wanted to say, and closed with this: “I’ll never have any regrets.”
Given some time, “Tonight Show” viewers probably won’t either.
‘LATE NIGHT’S’ BEST SKETCHES AND A TRIUMPH
Late-night comedy shows need late-night comedy sketches like news shows need news - an essential ingredient that defines the show nearly as much as the host. Conan O’Brien’s
“Late Night” has a long list of stuff, too. Some of it is scabrous - fine, most of it is - but here’s an incredibly short list of some of the standouts:
“Pale Force” - An animated series starring pale super-guys O’Brien and Jim Gaffigan.
Fake Celeb Interviews - Based on the old “Clutch Cargo” cartoon technique of using real human lips on real fake cartoon heads; “Bill Clinton” was a fave for years.
Libidinous Manatee - Based on a Web site that NBC was forced to buy/create after Conan mentioned it on the air.
Onanistic Bear - Based on the bear in a diaper that performs to “The Sabre Dance.”
If They Mated - The merging of celeb pictures to create ... monster progeny.
In the Year 2000 - Looking into the crystal ball. Oddly, the segment continued even after the year 2000 passed.
Recliner of Rage - staffer Pierre Bernard sits in a recliner and describes his pet peeves.
Quack, the duck - The duck that wanders the studio.
Pimpbot 5000 - Pimp robot.
Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog - Rude and toothless Rottweiler. But funny.
FedEx Pope - Guy in bathrobe, wearing FedEx box on head; pretends to be the pope.