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For Conan O’Brien, ‘Tonight’s’ the night

Redheaded comic has great respect for the venerated, nearly 60-year TV tradition he's stepping into as he becomes the latest "Tonight" host.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

In the promos for “The Tonight Show” with Conan O’Brien, the lanky, red-haired comedian is seen fully dressed in a black business suit, running along a California shoreline. Right away, viewers get it: Another pale East Coaster has arrived in Hollywood.

“I’m like Nixon on the beach,” O’Brien quipped to critics on an hour-long NBC conference call earlier this week.

After 16 seasons in New York, the 46-year-old packed up his family in February and left his old “Late Night” world behind. He says he’s been on a marathon ever since as he gears up for the dream job he’s always wanted — and the one NBC promised him five years ago — host of “The Tonight Show.”

(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)

O’Brien’s reverence for “Tonight” was evident right on the set of “Late Night,” where portraits of former “Tonight” hosts Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson hung on the wall near his Manhattan desk. He carried that reverence to his brand new California digs, built for him on the Universal Studios lot. Curvy, art deco lines reflect a golden age West Coast tradition, and a 1930s-era mural runs along the top of the set.

“Tonight” is a venerated, nearly 60-year TV tradition, said O’Brien, who wanted his new set to look like Allen, Paar or Carson would be at home if they could magically re-appear.

“I’m a jackass, there’s no changing that,” says the self-deprecating Harvard grad, “but I want the guests to look good.”

There have been rumblings about a rivalry between O’Brien and the man he replaces at “Tonight,” comic Jay Leno, with some seeing Leno’s September move to 10 p.m. as stealing O’Brien’s thunder. O`Brien insists Leno could not be more supportive, says he’s glad Leno remained with the network and there will be plenty of late night guests to go around. The feeling is apparently mutual.

“Conan will be great,” Leno said last week. “The key when he started his job, his main strength, was his writing. He grew to become a really great performer which is really better than the other way around.”

Former ‘Simpsons’ writer had slow startO’Brien was only 29 and a relative unknown when he auditioned to replace David Letterman as “Late Night” host in 1993. The former “Simpsons” and “Saturday Night Live” writer had an important ally in his corner; “SNL” boss Lorne Michaels. While Dana Carvey and others were considered, O’Brien tested well and got the gig.

Still, NBC had such little faith in him they renewed him for a year or so in tentative, 13-week installments. O’Brien’s initial awkwardness improved and his goofy charm eventually caught on to the point that he dominated his time slot, enjoying one of the longest weekly winning streaks in television (broken only toward the finish line by a steadily gaining Craig Ferguson at CBS).

To the network’s delight, O’Brien’s following was strongest among college-age viewers, who embraced the sly silliness of the sketches. They included such favorites as “Driving the Desk,” the “Year 2000,” the “Clutch Cargo”-like celebrity vocals and especially producer/writer Robert Smigel’s Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

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Night People

All of those features will travel with him to “Tonight,” which O’Brien says will maintain the silly edge of his old show. “We’re moving from one playground to another,” says O’Brien. While he acknowledges that some people will be “disappointed if I didn’t reinvent myself to some degree,” his main aim is still to make his show as funny as possible.

That would seem to line up well with the times. The recent network upfronts brought a hard shift away from dark crime dramas and toward lighter fare. Look for O’Brien’s “Tonight” to feature fewer opening monologue jokes than Leno, but more sketch comedy.

He's especially excited about taking advantage of all Universal Studios has to offer, including the tourist trams that circle the theme park area. "The first thing we have to do is screw with the tram," says O’Brien, who picked up a tip from Teri Hatcher, whose "Desperate Housewives" shoots on the same lot: Whenever he's in a funk, he just walks outside and waves at the tram, bringing screams from fans.

As for what does or doesn’t play at 11:30 p.m. as opposed to 12:30 a.m., O’Brien says it is all becoming moot. With DVRs, TiVo and on-demand computer streaming, he notes that people are watching shows at all hours of the day and night.

“What’s the most important thing for ‘The Tonight Show?' 'The Tonight Show' needs to be funny,” he says. “And I think if ‘The Tonight Show’ is really funny, you can experience it at 11:30 or you can watch it on your computer the next morning while you’re eating your oatmeal.”

Helping him make the show funny will be old pal Andy Richter, who left “Late Night” in 2000. The comedian will be more of an announcer, less of an Ed McMahon-style sidekick on “Tonight,” with O’Brien planning on bringing him off the bench whenever it fits. O’Brien is also pulling bandleader Max Weinberg off the road, where the drummer is currently touring with Bruce Springsteen (Weinberg's son, Jay, will keep time for the Boss in his stead).

O’Brien’s familiar theme song will follow him to “Tonight,” but the Max Weinberg 7 will brighten it with a little new energy and zip. “You don’t change your theme in the middle of your career,” says O’Brien, who points out "Thanks For The Memories" remained the iconic theme of Bob Hope 60 years after the famous comedian introduced the song.

As for how he's adjusting to life in L.A. after years in New York, O’Brien says he doesn't know yet. He hit the ground running and has barely had any time to spend with his wife or their two young children in their new Brentwood home. "It has been a marathon," he says. "My wife says she can't wait until I get back on the air so we might see you more."

Bill Brioux’s “Night Watch: 50 Years of Late Night Television,” is due out this fall from Praeger Press.