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Can Conan O'Brien's charm translate to ‘The Tonight Show'?

Maureen Ryan
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

NEW YORK - Walking into the New York studio of "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" isn't an overwhelming experience.

The talk-show studio in NBC's 30 Rockefeller Plaza is small and not exactly in pristine condition. Then again, O'Brien will be vacating this space in a few months, so it's not worth it to replace the carpeting.

In a long-planned succession, O'Brien will take over from Jay Leno as the host of "The Tonight Show" in 2009. According to news reports, O'Brien has bought a home in Los Angeles, where NBC is building him a new "Tonight" studio. Jimmy Fallon will follow O'Brien as the "Late Night" host.

What will become of Leno is an open question. Rumors have him contemplating everything from a late-night show for another network or even a Larry King-style program on CNN; Tribune Co. chairman Sam Zell has said he wants to talk to Leno too.

Given that O'Brien's 15-year tenure at "Late Night" is ending, I thought it would be worth checking out a taping of his show.

And a collection of "Late Night" clips shown to the audience before the taping once again proved that O'Brien's best moments come when he's improvising with unsuspecting strangers. O'Brien's loopy irreverence also works well with game and self-deprecating celebrities, such as Harrison Ford and Tom Hanks.

That kind of subversive silliness infused the best segment of the June 2 show. It wasn't the perfunctory but at least speedy interview with actor Seann William Scott, who was promoting a new movie, "The Promotion." It wasn't the fine performance by the Raconteurs, the evening's musical guests.

No, the best part was a pre-taped video clip of O'Brien eating dinner with one of the show's staffers, associate producer Jordan Schlansky.

The running gag of the Schlansky bits, which have been airing for a few months, is that the staffer appears to be incredibly pretentious and intensely serious. As such, he's the perfect straight man for O'Brien, who spent most of their dinner trying to get some kind of reaction out of the dour Schlansky.

How will these kinds of improbably funny bits work on "The Tonight Show"? That's the question. Sure, broad "Late Night" segments such as "If They Mated" would fit right in on an O'Brien version of "The Tonight Show," but many of the most irreverent, bizarre and funny things that O'Brien does could put off a "Tonight" audience used to Leno's bland pandering.

Then again, one of O'Brien's competitors, ABC's Jimmy Kimmel, has enjoyed success with his own offbeat brand of late-night comedy at midnight. If O'Brien can stay himself and still rake in viewers at 11:30 p.m. next year, maybe even Jordan Schlansky will crack a smile.

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