Jay Leno’s final episode as host of “The Tonight Show,” which aired last Friday, included his old reliable standby, Jaywalking. More than anything Leno did, that oft-repeated bit, stupid people in Los Angeles being a renewable resource, came to represent his version of “The Tonight Show” for me. It was an easy joke, a lazy joke, but it was also a comforting joke that never asked you to work very hard to laugh at it and with it.
Given how associated Jaywalking was with “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” it was hard not to feel that Conan O’Brien was immediately throwing down the gauntlet in the opening segment of his first episode of “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien.” In the filmed segment, Conan realized that he’d forgotten to get to the last thing on his pre-“Tonight Show” To Do List, “Move to LA.” Unable to catch a cab in Manhattan, Conan started running. He sprinted through Amish country. He ran across Wrigley Field. He zipped by Las Vegas and pounded the pavement through the desert. He ran all the way up to Stage One at Universal Studios and, when he realized he’d left his keys in Gotham, he hopped behind the wheels of a box-loader and went right through the wall.
Conan’s been waiting for this transition for five years and the opening bit reflected his urgency, in contrast to his predecessor’s occasional complacency or, at the very least, Leno’s relaxed gait.
I laughed more at Conan’s Monday (June 1) “Tonight Show” premiere than I’ve laughed at Leno in years, though, as would absolutely be expected, it’s still very much a work in progress.
[More thoughts on the premiere after the break…]
O’Brien wasn’t without complimentary words for Leno on Monday, but viewers waiting for that tip of the hat, or the completion of the torch-passing that began on Friday night, had to wait nearly 30 minutes, They had to wait through Conan Across America, through the opening credits (pronounced with flair by announcer Andy Richter), through the monologue and through a Conan As Universal Tram Conductor filmed bit that was very amusing, but also at least two or three minutes too long.
Finally O’Brien thanked Leno, calling him a great friend, before snarkily adding, “He’s going to be coming back on the air, I think in two days…” What followed was either a rueful laugh or the laugh Conan knew we expected. It’s completely possible that, as Conan has been professing for months now, he doesn’t care that even as “Tonight Show” host, Leno will still be his lead-in, and that he’ll have to compete with Leno for guests and that he’s basically had this thunder totally stolen. Yeah. Possible. I’m skeptical.
So O’Brien began his “Tonight Show” run by doing the only think within his control: He was funny. He made the usual jokes about his hair and his demeanor, but he looked comfortable throughout in the spiffy, shiny new set built just for him. In contrast to his unease when he began his hosting tenure and the fidgety nervousness that Jimmy Fallon has yet to shake, Conan was cool and urbane and made sure to acknowledge his new surroundings with what will either be his first of many Clippers jokes or a one-time shot at Los Angeles’ favorite athletic whipping boy.
O’Brien’s first “Tonight Show” only became a talk show incidentally. In addition to all of the aforementioned pre-taped business, there was a funny Ford Taurus commercial set to Billy Ocean and a live bit emphasizing the spacious new digs by wheeling in the “D” from the Hollywood sign. The show was more than half-over before Will Ferrell, O’Brien’s first guest, showed up in a sedan chair carried by four slaves. It was a lengthy and deliberate entrance that ate into the interview, as did Ferrell’s special serenade of “Never Can Say Good-Bye,” as he explained, “Don’t get me wrong, man. I’m pulling for you, but this whole thing’s a crapshot at best.” All the while, O’Brien was probably needlessly obsequious to his guest, as if Ferrell were doing him some colossal favor in coming on, not just showing up to plug a movie opening in five days. Ferrell was rushed off and Pearl Jam was rushed on, filling what appears to be an extra-large space for musical acts.
The reliance on filmed material is a product of extensive preparation for a first show and we can assume that guests will eventually — perhaps as soon as tomorrow night with Tom Hanks — become more important to the show’s flow. We can also probably assume that O’Brien and the “Tonight Show” production team will eventually figure out how to use Richter. Standing at a podium next to the audience, Richter was tentative on when he was supposed to participate, but to keep the possibility of his involvement open, his mic was always on, capturing a ton of forced laughter. I doubt that the chemistry Richter and O’Brien had on “Late Night” has vanished, so it will just be a matter of figuring out their new dynamic and establishing their roles.
When Conan started on “Late Night,” his reviews were almost universally negative, which helped fuel him and inspired him to clean up his craft. His arrival on the “Tonight Show” scene was far more polished and the reviews will be toward the other end of the spectrum. In over his head 15 years ago, Conan looked right at home in the 11:30 hour on Monday. I’ve never been a regular late night comedy guy, other than “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report,” but I may stick around for a few more evenings of “The Tonight Show” to watch Conan continue to adapt.