Now the fun begins.
After a week in the sun of L.A. — and the even harsher glare of the media spotlight — Conan O’Brien has settled in as host of “The Tonight Show.” Tom Hanks, Will Ferrell and Pearl Jam have come and gone. NBC’s booster rocket has fallen away. The redheaded Elvis is on his own now, with no special advantage over his main rival David Letterman other than the prestige of TV’s premier late-night franchise.
Stuck on a fourth-place network, O’Brien will have to convince a generation of viewers that a host who giggles awkwardly at his own jokes (even after 16 years on network TV) is a suitable replacement for the relentless standup fusillade of Jay Leno ... and not just for the four months until Leno’s new show begins.
As he did on his very first “Late Night” in 1993, O’Brien opened with an hour strong on written comedy. The highlight was the opening bit, in which Conan, realizing he had done everything he could to prepare for the “Tonight Show” except move to L.A., takes off on a cross-country run in his late-night hosting suit (buttoned). The sketch took him through Wrigley Field, St. Louis, the Grand Canyon and finally the entrance gate to Universal Studios. Other TV shows replayed the sketch, and a reporter at the NBC “news” station in New York even tried running down Fifth Avenue in his suit as well.
Also helping that first week was NBC “news” anchor Brian Williams coaxing a “Tonight Show” plug out of President Obama and, for the younger crowd, a wave of Internet chatter about O’Brien’s backdrop on stage, whose outline bore an uncanny resemblance to the scenery in the classic “Super Mario Bros.” video game (a fact O’Brien was only too happy to confirm on his show).
All the hype did its job. More than 7 million viewers tuned in for O’Brien’s June 1 debut, the largest Monday audience NBC had drawn to late-night in years. Inevitably, a large chunk of those viewers went away after that, but “Tonight” still ended the week about 10 percent ahead of where it stood in the ratings a year ago. The question is whether that will be enough to fend off a hard-charging Letterman, who trailed Leno by about a million viewers at the end.
Actually, there’s another question, and that’s whether Dave is interested in being that hard-charging. We seemed to get an answer to that this week, when the CBS “Late Show” host brought on his guest Howard Stern on Monday. Stern, the shock jock who for 25 years has been one of Letterman’s most reliably entertaining guests, immediately revealed that “your staff backstage” had informed him that “this was the night they thought they could beat Conan.” Monday has been strong for CBS historically, and booking Stern (who hadn’t been on Dave’s show in over a year) was bound to generate added interest.
Watching Letterman and Stern talk over each other, competing for the same oxygen, I realized how pleasurable it was to watch a familiar scene play out for the umpteenth time. And yet, however much I enjoyed it, this is the biggest challenge for the CBS host if he hopes someday to overtake the NBC host. At this point in his career, to know Dave is to love Dave. And if you don’t, well, that might be your problem, not his.
O’Brien is not beloved personally. Four generations of college students have kept his show popular, and the crowd in his studio uniformly goes nuts when he takes the stage, but even among diehard fans — and I count myself in that category — there isn’t that deep affection as with Letterman. He has had no heart surgery. He avoids discussing his family. His self-effacing, class-clown shtick is designed to deflect attention. None of this is bad. Conan may be hard to love, but he tries to be easy to like. And that may prove an effective strategy in the new late-night war.
By the way, if this “war” seems to be lacking in firepower, that’s because the personal animosity that governed the Leno-Letterman rivalry has evaporated. O’Brien was in awe of “Late Night with David Letterman” and has never been anything but generous toward his predecessor at NBC. And people forget this, but Dave arguably played a bigger role in boosting Conan’s fortunes than Hugh Grant ever did for Jay. On Feb. 28, 1994, Letterman appeared as a guest on his old show just when O’Brien needed him most.
“You guys do an incredible amount of comedy,” Letterman declared, “and the volume and the quality of the stuff just knocks me out. There’s nothing like this show on television and I really, really appreciate that.”
Even Stern refrained from taking any potshots at O’Brien the other night, instead taking aim at Leno. Not that Dave has mellowed. His crankiness was on full display just minutes before Stern’s arrival, as he recounted the story of a helicopter pilot circling his house. The punchline was that, after getting the pilot to land, Dave got so angry that he ordered him to leave, adding, “you fat (expletive),” a word that had to be both bleeped and pixellated on late-night TV.
While this behavior is endearing to longtime fans — and again, include me in the fold — it poses a sizable obstacle to any viewer thinking of changing allegiances in late night. (Jimmy Kimmel, who only seems to surface in the national press when he’s the subject of rumors about ABC finding another late-night host, is a non-factor.)
Thursdays are also good to CBS, so Letterman’s bookers are loading up at the buffet bar, with Denzel Washington and the Jonas brothers as his guests. For good measure, Regis Philbin will read the “Top Ten List.” Conan will counter with Norm Macdonald (his answer to Howard Stern) and Neko Case.
WHAT’S WORKING FOR ME ...
1. Conan! The future — and not just in the year 3000 — looks bright for NBC in late night with the hilarious redhead now in charge. “The Tonight Show” is funnier, fresher and more interesting than it’s been in years. Good luck with that bumping-“Law-and-Order” gig, Jay.
2. Neil Patrick Harris’s show-stopper. With up-to-the-minute lyrics and such couplets as “This show could not be gayer/If Liza was named mayor,” Doogie demonstrated why he should host the Tony Awards every year.
3. Edie Falco’s “Nurse Jackie” on Showtime and “Royal Pains” on USA. “Grey’s Anatomy” can stay in reruns as far as I’m concerned, now that summer — and this terrific tandem of doctor-and-nurse shows — has arrived.
... AND WHAT’S NOT
1. Laura Ling and Euna Lee in captivity. While making a documentary about female trafficking for Current TV, the woman were detained by North Korean military, then sentenced to 12 years in a kangaroo court for committing journalism.
2. Blaming the messengers. I’m appalled, though not terribly surprised, to find people saying it was Lee and Ling’s own fault that they were anywhere near the North Korean border when they were arrested. It appears Kim Jong-Il is not the only one who believes the world should rely solely on Pyongyang’s state-run television service.
3. “Raising the Bar.” Not since “Jimmy Kimmel Live” has a TV show been so deceptively named.