How Did Conan O’Brien Do on His Opening Night?

How did Conan O’Brien do on his opening night?

Comedian and writer Conan O’Brien recently took over the seat usually occupied by Jay Leno on NBC’s popular “Tonight Show”. Conan O’Brien made a name for himself in show business first as a writer for popular comedy shows like “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons”. O’Brien was eventually offered the job as the replacement host for David Letterman after that popular late night host’s show moved up an hour.

Late Night with Conan O’Brien premiered in 1993, and was met with seriously unfavorable reviews. In fact, for the first three years of Late Night with Conan O’Brien, NBC considered cancelling the show. Once O’Brien hit his stride, he became a critical darling with a huge cult following. While Jay Leno and David Letterman tended to “play it straight”, O’Brien was never scared to venture into the bizarre, as evidenced by sketches involving self pleasuring diaper wearing bears and marathon races between famous landmarks.

Conan O’Brien further distanced himself from the norm with several “routines” that became part and parcel of his image. O’Brien is more active and spontaneous than other Late Night hosts. O’Brien would often mime, and is known for extreme self depreceation. His expressive face and heavy use of impressions, combined with awkward pauses and playing with his hair makes him an easy target for imitators. O’Brien is “100% Irish”, according to his interview on Inside the Actor’s Studio, and uses his pale skin and odd hair often in his monologues and routines.

So how is Conan O’Brien faring in his new time slot? Many critics were worried that his awkward delivery and off beat style wouldn’t work as well with an audience used to the more laid back Jay Leno. Overall, the critical reaction has been cautiously optimistic — many bloggers are quick to remind people that late night TV is a long-term game, and we shouldn’t be too quick to pass judgement. Remember that it took Conan about three seasons to really hit his stride on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien”.

One TV blogger noted that his first episode was slightly awkward — “like swooping in for a kiss at the end of a first date.” As we expected, Conan O’Brien didn’t lean on the stand up comedy routines Jay Leno is famous for. Instead, his first show seemed like a cross between his own awkward style and David Letterman’s — a few O’Brien-esque jokes peppered in between taped segments. In fact, the taped portions of the show made up a full half of the show’s entirety.

Right from the start, O’Brien was quick to acknowledge the difference between himself and his predecessor. “I’ve got great timing,” O’Brien joked, just after a taped segment that showed O’Brien running across the country from his old studio in New York to his new swanky Los Angeles studio. To break the ice, O’Brien offered his best joke of the night — “I’m on the last-place network, I moved to a state that’s bankrupt, and the show is sponsored by General Motors.” Typically self deprecating and hilarious.

A series of taped segments showed Joe Biden purportedly “vetting” Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, asking her if she “has swine flu”. We also saw O’Brien sitting in the nosebleed section of a Los Angeles Lakers game, not exactly getting the red carpet treatment. Finally, in what many are calling the best bit of the night, O’Brien played host for a Universal Studios tour bus, stopping to buy all the tourists tacky souveniers at a Los Angeles dollar store.

The fact is that viewers love Conan O’Brieb. Many fans will be glad to give O’Brien time to get used to his new studio, new hosting role, and new city. If O’Brien has to work out a few awkward bits of timing with his new/old announcer and sidekick Andy Richter, so be it. The return of Richter, whose departure from “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” was one of the saddest moments on the old show, is a highlight for this late night viewer.

More good news — silly bits work well for Conan. We saw Fabio and O’Brien trying to look cool driving O’Brien’s infamous 1992 Taurus around L.A., with Fabio (who famously owns tons of expensive muscle cars) remarking “I wish I could have a Taurus. Then there was the apperance of O’Brien’s only “sit down” guest, Will Ferrell, who was also the last guest on O’Brien’s old show. Ferrell was funny, if not a bit awkward. Note to the producer’s of The Tonight Show — more guests, please.

Even the slightly outdated musical guest Pearl Jam hit a nice groove about halfway through a song off their new album. Let’s all hope that O’Brien and his producers are comfortable enough to unleash some of O’Brien’s best bits — like the often offensive Triumph the Insult Comic Dog or the always hilarious “In the Year 3000”. These bits are typical for O’Brien in that they are wacky and chuckle inducing bits that highlight O’Brien’s strengths in humor. Some critics fear that if O’Brien sticks to his old “Late Night” antics, the audience used to the more morose Jay Leno will stop watching. Remember, The Tonight Show still holds the ratings lead against David Letterman.

Once he gets comfy in his new digs, a relaxed and more confident Conan O’Brien is likely to make the same kind of hilarious and compelling television that forced me to stay up late just to see what he would do. We just couldn’t expect that from him on his first night.