Snap Judgment: The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien
Will Ferrell and Conan O'Brien
The shake-up of late-night TV continued last night with the introduction of the new, Conan O'Brien-hosted Tonight Show. While there were lots of new, shiny things to look at, overall it was like the return of a familiar old friend, starting with the display of a charming vintage NBC peacock logo.
Conan is looking over a to-do list, but oh no! He forgot to move to L.A.! So he runs there to the tune of Cheap Trick's "Surrender," which is a pretty hip choice for Leno's heir apparent. His hipster version of the Forrest Gump running trope passes through Amish country; through Wrigley Field, during a game; past the St. Louis arch; across the Mississippi, swimming, in a suit; within view of the Rockies; with a quick, hilarious pit stop at the Victorian Doll Museum; across the desert; through Las Vegas and down the 110 freeway to his new home at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. But he's locked out because he left his keys back in New York! So he bulldozes the wall of the studio and television history commences!
It's the same theme song as O'Brien's Late Night, but with a new Tonight Show voiceover. We get a view of the huge new studio, which is slick with polished woods, watery curtains and lots of newfangled lighting. It looks nice. Andy Richter is there, as is Max Weinberg and the Tonight Show Band (no more measly "seven" for him). The applause for O'Brien's entrance builds and builds until he pleads with the audience to stop. "It's coming across as angry now," he jokes. "At least we know the applause sign works."
Proving that he's the same old Conan, he tells a joke about being the new peeping-Tom over on the nearby Desperate Housewives' Wisteria Lane set. Proving that this is still The Tonight Show, he tosses off the obligatory Clippers-are-a-bad-team and famous-people-watch-the-Lakers jokes. There's a bit of Supreme Court humor, and nobody laughs louder than Richter, who must be really happy to have a steady job again. Their chemistry is palpable.
UNIVERSAL STUDIOS TOUR!
Conan takes over the famed trolley ride, and his outsized responses to the manufactured drama of the various spectacles are amusing. Two favorites: he calls a sudden flash flood "Octo-Mom's water breaking" and mocks the Norman Bates stand-in who fake-attacks the trolley. "It's too hot for corduroy; wear a light poplin or linen!" he admonishes the killer. "And commit your crimes at night!"
AT THE DESK!
Conan delivers a brief, polite acknowledgment to Jay Leno. He is glad that Leno will still be his lead-in, he says through gritted teeth. "He's going to be coming back on the air... in, I think, two days, three days tops," he snarks, and punctuates the jab with a withering impression of The Chin Who Will Never Retire.
To show how big his new studio is, O'Brien announces that they've stolen a letter from the famed Hollywood sign. In comes a giant letter D, which the crew destroys by rolling it out through a too-short doorway. Conan's reaction shot on the crumbling letter is better than the rest of the bit. "Hollywoo is kind of catchy," offers Andy.
In a prerecorded segment, Conan shows off his 1990 Ford Taurus to the tune of Billy Ocean's "Get Out of My Dreams (and Into My Car)," which is pretty much the best part of this tepid skit.
The bloviating movie star enters the studio on a Cleopatra-style throne carried by four Egyptian-costumed musclemen (Google tells me it's called a palanquin), and starts by offering Conan his "heartfelt" congratulations on the night of his Tonight Show debut. "It's so incredible because no one thought you could do it," Ferrell deadpans.
Ferrell jokingly lobbies Tony voters (he was nominated for his President Bush-themed one-man show), who, it must be said, neither watch The Tonight Show nor are still awake. He laments that his strongest competition in his category, Liza Minnelli, is definitely going to win. But not if he has anything to say about it: "Liza's a Communist," he announces. "A vote for Liza is like urinating on the flag." Stay classy, San Diego!
He closes his segment by serenading Conan with the Jackson Five's "Never Can Say Goodbye," which is only appropriate because he says "this whole thing's a crapshoot at best." Aw, sweet.
Eddie Vedder and Co. play a single from their new album, Backspacer, and it's sufficiently rockin', but there isn't much to say here, except that Vedder looks a bit swollen.
And that's basically it. I have to say: It's basically the same show, right down to the pitch-perfect O'Brien-Richter patter. O'Brien has kept his mischievous, self-deprecating glee intact, but nothing about the show appeared to be too surreal or alienating for the timeslot's existing, graying audience (no masturbating bears were in attendance). I'm sure he'll take a few weeks to test those risqué waters, but I'm not worried about Conan. He's already proven himself as a late-night talent, and there's no evidence that he'll be anything but one hour earlier.
Tom Hanks will be in the hizzy tomorrow.
What did you think of Conan's debut show? Any surprises? Disappointments? Will you be tuning in?