Conan O’Brien debuted as host of “The Tonight Show” with a jog across the country to Los Angeles and other comedy bits on his entry into a strange new West Coast culture.
He joined a line of predecessors — Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno — on television’s most historic late-night franchise.
“I think I’ve timed this move perfectly,” he said in his opening monologue aired Monday night. “I’m on a last-place network, I moved to a state that’s bankrupt and ‘The Tonight Show’ is sponsored by General Motors.”
O’Brien spent 17 years as host of NBC’s “Late Night” in New York, and the move up one hour has been in the works for five years. Leno, his immediate predecessor, will do a weeknight prime-time show on NBC. The workaholic Leno will start “in two days, three days tops,” O’Brien joked. Actually, it’s in September.
O’Brien christened a new studio on the Universal City lot with a handsome art-deco look. The stage has a blue glass background for the opening monologue, before O’Brien retreats to a desk in front of a sparkling backdrop of Los Angeles.
A frantic O’Brien went out in the street to find a cab. When he couldn’t, he began running. He ran out of New York, and sprinted across the country — across Wrigley Field in Chicago, past the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, by the Rockies and through the desert to Las Vegas. Finally he arrived at the locked door to his new studio, only to realize he’d left his keys behind.
In other segments, O’Brien commandeered a tram filled with tourists on a Universal Studios lot tour and took his used green Ford Taurus for a ride into Los Angeles’ car-obsessed culture. Fabio complimented him on his ride.
O’Brien appeared nervous at the long-awaited opening night, pacing onstage during his monologue and mugging with his red pompadour.
“I remember watching Johnny Carson when I was a kid and thinking: That’s what I want to be when I grow up,” O’Brien said. “I’m sure right now in America there is likely a kid watching me, thinking: ‘What is wrong with that man’s hair?”’
Longtime sidekick Andy Richter slid smoothly into the role Ed McMahon once played for Carson, standing at a podium to the side of the stage and loudly laughing at his boss’ jokes.
Over at CBS, David Letterman slyly mentioned NBC’s transition.
“I’m still here,” he said. “I knocked off another competitor.”
He said he got a call from his mom and she said, “Well, David, I see you didn’t get ‘The Tonight Show’ again,” a reference to Letterman losing out to Leno to become Carson’s successor.
Pearl Jam was the musical guest, debuting a song off an upcoming album.
Ferrell sang his own song in tribute to O’Brien, a version of “Never Can Say Goodbye” that “bewildered” the host. Why sing a goodbye song on the first night?
“Don’t get me wrong,” Ferrell said. “I’m pulling for you. But this little thing is a crapshoot at best.”