Lea Michele, Conan O'Brien

On his first night back in the late-night saddle, Conan O'Brien killed — and was killed, Sonny Corleone-style, riddled with bullets as he left the NBC gates in his hilarious cold open. Then the guests came on, and he died a little. And then he roared back to life, jamming and clowning with his musical guest.

At times, Conan's opening night on TBS Monday felt like a very special occasion, and at other times, it felt like just another night in the long-running life of a late-night talk-show host in career transition. And maybe that's as it should be.

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Launching his basic-cable talk show, which might more accurately be called The Conan & Andy Hour, Conan once again assumed the mantle of funky, quirky, embattled underdog he enjoyed before his short-lived, ill-fitting and ill-fated coronation as the Tonight host. As happy to be back on TV as his fans are thrilled to welcome him back, Conan bristled with giddy and exuberant energy, delivering his disarmingly self-deprecating spiel while needling NBC at every turn.

Conan is to The Tonight Show what off-Broadway is to Broadway — in one of the gags of the opening sketch, which also featured Jon Hamm as Don Draper and Larry King as his basic-cable "guardian angel," TBS execs handed him a slip of paper with their terms, reading "much less." But for this Team Coco enthusiast, his new situation feels more like home and truer to his maverick character. It may be a smaller stage, but it's gorgeously designed (with a mobile moon hovering over an ocean view) and brings Conan and his invaluable sidekick Andy Richter closer to his adoring audience.

With Conan, he isn't reinventing anything: not the format, least of all himself. He even revived the Masturbating Bear for a cameo appearance to remind us where he came from. "Welcome to my second annual first show," he joked, acknowledging that the more things change, the more they somehow don't.

His brisk and funny monologue circulated on Twitter shortly before the premiere aired. What was missing from those spoilers: Conan's goofy delivery and especially the droll, crisp comebacks from Richter, who often eclipsed his host on the first night. "Yes, I know what you guys are thinking: 'Hey, it's the guy from Twitter,'" Conan joked. To which Andy added: "Wait, you mean you're Kanye West?" When Conan remarked on the irony of having caused all this mess by walking away from Tonight to avoid it being pushed back to midnight, but premiering Conan at what essentially felt like midnight anyway (in Daylight Savings Time terms), Andy shrugged, "We got the summer off." Zing!

The best bit came once Andy sat beside Conan — a much preferable dynamic than stranding him at the podium, as in the Tonight days — and they donned rubber Conan Halloween masks, insultingly labeled "Ex-Talk Show Host." (Conan: "What the hell? Why didn't you just put a cigarette out in my eye?") When Andy put his mask on, he quipped, "It's very authentic inside. Inside, it smells like tears." Tears of laughter, maybe.

The good vibes continued with the brilliant Ricky Gervais taping a welcome ("I've got a really good feeling about this one") that naturally took a dark turn. "Maybe I should bang a few more out in case he needs them down the road," Gervais said, predicting a career tailspin that would take Conan to the Food Network, Good Morning Dayton and eventually to satellite radio: "He's sort of got the looks, but his voice is a little bit annoying."

On his first night, Conan took no chance that anyone else might be mistaken as the star of Conan. (Tom Hanks doesn't arrive until Tuesday night.) His first guests, a sheepish Seth Rogen and an aggressively perky Lea Michele, were decidedly (purposely?) low-impact and forgettable — as Rogen noted, "I'm so glad everyone more famous was busy right now." They were mere warm-ups for the final act: musician Jack White, with whom Conan joyfully jammed with a gusto you're unlikely to see matched by any other late-night host. Except, maybe, his boyish Late Night successor Jimmy Fallon.

Is Conan the sort of show that's going to revolutionize TV? Probably not. But Conan O'Brien remains a singularly appealing and wonderfully silly voice in the crowded clamor of late night, and it's good to see him back where he belongs. Gervais' ribbing aside, I have a feeling he's here to stay.

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