As Conan O’Brien surveyed the scene, he couldn’t resist telling a joke.
“There’s a big breaking story that no one’s gonna get!” he declared, as the entire newsroom of Kansas City’s “Breaking News Leader,” stood patiently in a long line waiting for a turn with him.
Conan O’Brien is taking over “The Tonight Show” from Jay Leno this spring. And for the past month, ever since he signed off “Late Night” for the last time, he’s been meeting and greeting at NBC affiliates across the country.
Just as Leno once did when he found himself in second place behind David Letterman, Conan O’Brien is running for mayor of late night.
“This is nothing,” he said after two hours of signing autographs, taping promos and doing interviews with local media. “Yesterday, wherever I was, they had me working 4 ½ hours solid.” (Actually, he was in both Indianapolis and St. Louis the day before.) “But I’m energized by it.”
The 30-city blitz was built around what the tour’s publicist called “markets of opportunity,” mostly in the Midwest and Texas, where “Tonight” comes on at 10:35 p.m. CDT.
Despite being on the road for most of a month, O’Brien looked morning fresh while working the crowd. He signed a salesman’s neck, held up babies that were brought to him and gave extra attention to Emily Morrison, the daughter of KSHB-TV videographer Chris Morrison. She brought a card to sign.
“Emily, nice to meet you,” he wrote. “Best, Conan O’Brien.”
Someone suggested that after he was done here, he should go next door and barge in on the St. Patrick’s Day parade. That, Conan assured him, would be a bad idea. (Besides, he was expected Denver that afternoon.)
“I’d be like the Lucky Charms leprechaun - they’d tear me limb from limb,” he said.
After working through a line that went 50 deep, he went into makeup and then the news studio, where the local news anchors of were waiting to take some formal shots.
“This is how we walk through town,” he joked as he locked arms with them.
In the annals of late-night TV, this is as momentous a time as that watershed year of 1993, when Leno was fighting to save his job, Letterman was soaring to new heights on a new network and a 6-foot-4 beginner known only inside the offices of “The Simpsons” and “SNL” took Dave’s place at NBC.
The stakes are just as high this year, but somehow they don’t feel that way. In part that’s because people’s late-night entertainment options have grown exponentially since then. Besides “The Colbert Report” and Adult Swim, Conan’s “Tonight Show” will have to compete with people playing tennis on Wii and watching “The Daily Show” commercial-free on their DVRs.
Also, the sense of the new is missing this time. No one’s carving out virgin territory, the way Letterman did on CBS. Leno isn’t leaving NBC; he’s just taking his act to 10 p.m. ET starting this fall. Even Jimmy Fallon, who took over O’Brien’s spot on NBC’s “Late Night,” is well-known to a generation of late-night watchers from his “SNL” years.
“In ‘93 I was clinging to Evel Knievel’s rocket going over the Snake River canyon, and six months later the story was that it was a miracle I wasn’t dead,” said O’Brien as a makeup artist touched him up. “My wife said to me, ‘You’re not launching a show this time.’ And she’s right.”
But that doesn’t mean things won’t change on “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien,” which will sign on from new digs at L.A.‘s Universal Studios June 1.
“When you think about the fact that we were on ‘Late Night’ for 16 years, closing in on 3,000 shows, I feel like if we DON’T change, we’re going to be in trouble,” he said. “It’s like saying to the Beatles, ‘Don’t change your mop tops. Keep singing ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand.’
“There, I’ve just compared myself to the Beatles.”
As he’s traveled the country, O’Brien said he’s noticed “a generational reaction” to his new time period. “Certain people will say, ‘Well, this is a big change for you.’ And then, anyone in their 30s or younger they say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s gonna be great.’ It’s no big deal.”
So which is it, deal or no deal? Well, at first, a little of both.
He’ll be playing to a larger crowd, both in the studio and at home. (“Tonight” draws about 5 million viewers a night, compared with 2 million for “Late Night.”)
But the band will be the same. And Conan’s getting his old sidekick back, Andy Richter, though this time he’ll serve as “announcer” and will devise and star in comedy sketches, but won’t be required to sit on stage the entire time.
“Andy gives us a deep bench,” O’Brien said.
A lot of what will define the “Tonight Show” in the future - “the future, Conan?” - hasn’t even been thought up yet, said its next host.
“When I fly around the country and talk to people, there are so many people who will ask me to please do the ‘string dance’ or growl at them,” he said. “Well, most of those things I did unconsciously. I know this sounds narcissistic, but when I enjoy what I’m doing, that’s good television. People want to see me having fun.”
Television critic Aaron Barnhart is online at TVBarn.com.