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O’Brien is smart, funny choice for ‘Tonight’

Conan O'Brien may be a funny guy, and he's great doing that late night show that nobody watches, but there's no way that translates into a big-time show. NBC should pay whatever it takes to either keep the guy it already has in that role or look elsewhere for a more qualified replacement. There's no way this move won't be a disaster.Where have we heard all that before? Oh, right, in 1993, when Con
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Conan O'Brien may be a funny guy, and he's great doing that late night show that nobody watches, but there's no way that translates into a big-time show. NBC should pay whatever it takes to either keep the guy it already has in that role or look elsewhere for a more qualified replacement. There's no way this move won't be a disaster.

Where have we heard all that before? Oh, right, in 1993, when Conan replaced David Letterman as the host of “Late Night.” Letterman moved to CBS, Conan slid into NBC's late anchor seat, and after a rough start he's been a fixture for a generation of college students, insomniacs and night owls willing to wait up for a good laugh and some great music.

Now, Conan is set to make another big jump, replacing Jay Leno as the host of “The Tonight Show” in 2009. That's been in the works since 2004, but this week NBC Universal President and CEO Jeff Zucker reiterated that the transfer of power was still on schedule, just in case Leno has second thoughts about retiring.

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And let's be honest, he must be having doubts. “The Tonight Show” is the best gig in late night, a franchise that's stood the test of time. The hosting slot has gone from Steve Allen to Jack Paar to Johnny Carson to Jay Leno, and there's nowhere to go but down from that job. Leno will be just 59 when NBC gives him the gold watch in 2009, and all of those collector cars and motorcycles cost money.

But that's not the smart choice. And that's why NBC shouldn't do it.

A Sharper, Funnier Show

Unless NBC can somehow talk Leno into taking another job within the organization, or Conan into sticking with his past-everyone's-bedtime timeslot for the foreseeable future, the network is going to lose one or the other in two years. Controversial though the move may be, it would be crazy for the network to let go of the host with the greater potential just because some may fear change and want to keep the status quo.

Leno had the unenviable job of replacing Johnny Carson and has done a nice job, but most of his attributes are a function of dedication, hard work, and great talent bookers rather than talent. He's dedicated to the comedy craft. He shows up pretty much every night — no continuing the Carson-era guest host series for him! He's loyal to the network.

What he's not, however, is fresh. Or funny, for the most part.

When was the last time anyone showed up for work raving about something that Jay Leno said on “The Tonight Show”? The biggest happening the program's had in years was Fred Thompson's announcing his presidential candidacy, and judging by his poll numbers that may not be much of an event after all.

By contrast, Conan is fresh, funny, and smart. Apart from some of the self-deprecating humor that will be easy to leave behind when he takes the more prominent stage, his monologues are sharp.

“Triumph the Insult Comic Dog” is one of the best recurring characters in recent memory, and that began on Conan. Bits like his series about being the president of Finland are clever and buzzworthy. If he's hosting “The Tonight Show,” there's a much better chance that it will become appointment viewing more than the current administration's product.

Battle-tested

There's always a risk replacing a fixture like Leno, even if a lot of his appeal comes from the office he holds.

But with Conan O'Brien available, that risk is decreased significantly because Conan has already shown the ability to adapt as necessary to succeed in a more challenging role. He's a bright guy with a brilliant writing staff who has already gone through the learning curve.

As soon as he took over for Letterman, rumors of his inevitable replacement began to surface. Nobody thought he would last. He was going to be the random guy who replaced the legend, allowing somebody with better credentials to step in with the easier task of simply replacing him.

But that didn't happen, because at the end of every 13-week contract Conan was getting better. If a bit didn't work, he ad-libbed his way out of it or dumped the topic entirely. He grew into the role, to the point that NBC was so worried about losing him when his contract last expired that they promised him the “The Tonight Show” gig in the first place.

Is Conan over the top sometimes? Sure. Will he have to reign that in? Probably.

But Conan O'Brien is not an idiot, though he doesn't hesitate to call himself one if that's what punctuates the joke. He'll do what it takes, not to transform himself into a Leno clone or a new version of Johnny Carson, but to take the attributes that make his current show a success and translate them to the new role.

The last time Conan O'Brien replaced a legend, it seemed far more likely that he'd be fired within a year or two than he'd still be on the job more than a decade later. But he grew into that role. He'll grow into this one as well.

Craig Berman is a regular contributor to msnbc.com.