Conan's Debut Was a Yawn

O'Brien's first Tonight Show fell short because the format is so retro, says Caryn James. So will he play it safe—or will he take some risks? Plus, watch highlights.

Paul Drinkwater, NBC / AP Photo

Conan O’Brien started off his hugely hyped gig as host of The Tonight Show with a hilarious and brilliant little film, a pure Conan absurdity that began with him having checked off everything on his to-do list for the first show, except “Move to L.A.” In an elaborately shot routine, he literally runs cross country, arms pumping in his blue suit as he races past an Amish buggy and the St. Louis Arch, cuts across Wrigley Field and zooms through Las Vegas until he lands in... that old-fashioned cookie cutter called Tonight. It’s almost a letdown, because there’s no way taking over that show can be anything but retro.

No one is even trying to disguise the backward-looking mandate. In fact, Conan’s dash from N.Y. to L.A. was the show’s second element. The first: a vintage NBC intro, the one with the peacock and the quaint promise, “the following program is brought to you in living color.” Conan is taking over a franchise that desperately needs to be shaken up, and that NBC really doesn’t want him to tamper with. The question is: Will The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien be a retro-smart reinvention or just backward looking?

Even on automatic pilot, Conan’s old show was always smarter than Jay’s Tonight—but he’s not edgy, and he grew less edgy over his years on Late Night.

What we can see so far is the weird hybrid of a Conan—pleasant as always, getting more relaxed as the night went on—who has moved into a house he didn’t get to design, just redecorate. (The actual set works pretty well; the variation on the standard desk and couch has glittery deco touches that evoke an old movie palace.)

His first monologue, taken up with applause and introductions, wasn’t quite a monologue yet, although he did have one good joke. ”I’ve timed this moment perfectly,” he said about his arrival. “I’m on a last-place network, I moved to a state that’s bankrupt, and tonight’s show is sponsored by General Motors.”

He introduced some great continuity: his terrific band from Late Night with Conan O’Brien, renamed Max Weinberg and the Tonight Show Band instead of the Max Weinberg 7. But what could be more retro-tired than bringing back Andy Richter, his original Late Night sidekick? (The show went on perfectly well without a sidekick for all those years after Richter left; last night, he stood behind a podium off stage with very little to do).

Nothing on the show seemed as genuinely Conan as that opening sequence, and some other filmed bits were flat: Conan commandeers the Universal Tour trolley. Conan rides around L.A. attracting babes in his ’92 Ford Taurus. (At least that routine slyly positioned him as the non-Leno, the opposite of the car-obsessed guy with the garage-full of curiosities.)

When he drank out of a familiar blue ceramic mug he’d used on Late Night or tugged the imaginary strings attached to his hips to make them swivel the way he did on the old show, those touches were like semaphore signs saying “I’m still Conan.”

His guest, Will Ferrell, was carried out in a sedan chair by bare-chested men in Egyptian headdresses as if he were a Pharaoh—a loopy touch that shows how in synch his humor is with Conan’s. Ferrell’s deadpan theme for the night was his amazement that Conan had made it to Tonight because, “No one thought you could do it. No one.”

That, of course, is the precise opposite of reality. Conan was always the safe, mild-mannered choice to replace Jay Leno, who is blandness incarnate. Conan’s humor can be wry or goofy—and even on automatic pilot, his old show was always smarter than Jay’s Tonight—but he’s not edgy, and he grew less edgy over his years on Late Night. Occasionally he’d let Triumph the Insult Comic Dog loose for some of Rob Smigel’s acerbic satire, but Conan’s m.o. has always been gentler humor. He wasn’t brought in to break any molds. He’s there to protect the still-money-making Tonight franchise even as the network-television model crumbles under NBC’s feet.

It’s a good thing he can do retro so well. In the last weeks of Late Night, when he was showing the best routines from previous years, he included his personal favorite, a filmed sketch called Old-Timey Baseball, in which he visited a real team that plays with 1864 rules and costumes. First as Conan the interviewer and later as a gangly 19th-century ballplayer with an enormous handlebar moustache, he brought a droll contemporary spin along on this silly excursion to the past, yelling “What’s that demonry?” as he pointed at a jet cruising over the 19th-century pretense.

His best backward looks are always this droll.

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He made several funny forward-looking promos for Tonight, most with him as a displaced New Yorker running on the beach. A black-and-white version has his voiceover describing ” My pale Irish skin burning like a vampire’s in the sun,” as if he were narrating an arty little horror film.

But the sharpest promo has him introducing “an exciting new technology called television,” which you can watch just the way you do a laptop or a phone, “but in a more comfortable chair.” Now there’s the retro-smart Conan, putting an up-to-date spin on a fake old-fashioned ad.

But that very clever promo has arsenic at its center, calling attention to just how backward-looking the whole protect-the- Tonight-franchise idea is. Honestly, guarding that franchise should be Jeff Zucker and the other NBC execs’ problem, not ours. The chatter leading up to Conan’s premiere and Jay’s move to a prime-time show in the fall reveals a huge disconnect between what the network and the journalists invested in their story care about, and what matters to viewers searching for something fresh and fun. All we’re getting out of this cautious behavior is a hamstrung Conan and the dismal prospect of five nights of Leno at 10, a move that can only seem daring in a world where genuine risk is so costly it’s impossible.

In another disconnect, journalists and Conan himself keep invoking the ghost of Johnny Carson. “I remember watching Johnny Carson as a kid,” Conan has said in plenty of interviews and even in his first monologue (though he leapt from that to a self-deprecating comment about his own hair). But Carson is irrelevant to this conversation. There already is a Carson for a new generation, and he’s Jon Stewart, not because he’s stylistically similar, but because he created a new model for late-night that has become the standard for both wit and influence.

One bright possibility could still emerge from NBC’s game of musical chairs. If Jay’s viewers migrate to prime time (and his mantra to every big-name guest in his last week was “Come see us at 10 o’clock”) that may give Conan more freedom to make some bold moves. He has a choice: He can play it safe and reign as protector of an empire that is inevitably going to crumble as the network audience scatters, or he can turn this old-fashioned gig into something that actually feels new. What’s it going to be, Conan?

Xtra Insight: Watch the 9 Most Talked About Moments from Conan's Debut

Xtra Insight: The Daily Beast's Kim Masters: Leno's Second Thoughts About 10 p.m.

Caryn James is a cultural critic for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Marie Claire and The New York Times Book Review. She was a film critic, chief television critic and critic-at-large for The New York Times, and an editor at the Times Book Review. She is the author of the novels Glorie and What Caroline Knew.