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The Conan Transition

By admin Published: June 2, 2009

I can't say that Conan O'Brien was smart on his debut as host of "The Tonight Show." But he was logical.

By that, I mean that he spent a great deal of the show demonstrating to the audience what his sense of humor is. After all, as he acknowledged during his appearance on Jay Leno's "Tonight" farewell, Conan has had a different audience on "Late Night" than he should have on "Tonight." And there are plenty of people who have managed to stay awake for at least part of "Tonight" who don't make it all the way to "Late Night." Heck, if it weren't for DVRs, I would see much less of either show.

So with bits like the run from NY to LA, and the Universal tour, and the Taurus drive, Conan showed people what he is: a little absurd, kind of a doofus, with a humor that goes for the wise smile as often as it begs for the silly laugh. Anyone watching last night got a picture of what "Tonight" will be like when he is host.

That said, it was something of a blurry picture. Conan was obviously nervous, a little hyper, pushing the facial gestures harder than he might, rolling over what could have been some decent interplay with Andy Richter, and not saving a Will Ferrell appearance that was more forced than funny. So audiences got the shape of Conan but not the details -- not the confident Conan, not the "I can make you laugh" Conan, not the wonderful work he did when he came back before the end of the writers strike and had to wing it in a way that would have made Steve Allen laugh.

The basic question, then: Was Conan good enough to get people to come back? It's hard for me to answer that question because, as I said, I am not a regular viewer of late-night TV; any viewing I do in the next couple of weeks will come more from the professional urge than a real longing to see the show. Some of my interest may depend on the guests, and I'm really curious about how that will go; last night wasn't a really good demonstration because so much of the show was Conan-centric, with Ferrell the only real guest. And the question of guests will have to be asked again in the fall, when Leno is doing his show and there is bound to be some arm-wrestling over who gets whom.

Speaking of Leno, I thought he did a nice job with his final show, and especially with the end, when he showed the staffers' children born during his 17-year tenure. (The acknowledgment of the union people working on the show was also good, as it tied to Jay's working-man sensibility and tried to make up for any hard feelings that might have lingered when Jay went back to work before the end of the writers strike.)

Leno certainly gave Conan a nice hand-off (with Conan thanking Jay in turn on Monday's show), in clear contrast to Johnny Carson's public handling of Jay's succession. And still Leno made note of Carson as a mentor, and by doing so connected the history of "Tonight" to the years before Jay and -- with the Conan segment -- to the years to come. That, and the presentation of the children, reminded one and all that "Tonight" is something bigger and more important than Jay himself --- as Jay would be the first to admit.

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