Beware, Conan O’Brien; it’s later than you think

New NBC “Late Night” host Conan O’Brien was smoother during his second major press conference (the first came the day after he was chosen), but the questions betrayed the sort of built-in bias he’ll face as well as the laziness of many of the critics. “How are you going to be different?” Tell us your “new ways to be funny”– as opposed to what , the “old ways” to be funny?

Best of all, and with inadvertent honesty, one writer said petulantly, “We don’t know what you have done, so as a result we can’t judge you or prejudge you.”

The problem, of course, is that people are going to prejudge O’Brien, without giving him a chance to settle in and find a formula that works for the show. The same may hold true for Chevy Chase, but Chase has been in the spotlight before and at least has an established persona.

REMEMBER THAT LINE they kept repeating in the “Star Wars” trilogy, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”? Those words seemed to echo through the halls last week during a TV critics tour session with Conan O’Brien. O’Brien, the host-designate of NBC’s “Late Night,” appears to be an affable, clever fellow. Still, it’s hard to believe that he or anybody else has a clear idea of the drubbing he may be facing. Critics, who can’t help but resent the opportunity this unknown, 30-year-old “kid” is being given, will likely be brutal. NBC, fearing the diminution of its latenight franchise, may be quick on the trigger finger. And viewers, with all those tempting latenight alternatives, will take a look but may quickly go elsewhere or simply to bed if they’re not immediately bowled over.

What’s forgotten is that it wasn’t always thus. No one cared much about the hour following “The Tonight Show” until David Letterman took it, molded it and, over time, developed it into a brilliant series with all sorts of continuing features to augment the host’s own disarming quirkiness.

Twelve years later, and the coverage of latenight has changed in the same way politicians can no longer count on minimal levels of deference and civility from the Washington press corps.

WITH THE DISPROPORTIONATE coverage of latenight spurred by the “Tonight Show” succession controversy, O’Brien will be under a microscope from the get-go. More pointedly, most newspapers will review the first episode with great fanfare, then not revisit the show to track its progress.

Similarly, the first night and premiere week ratings will be analyzed and discussed at length. The second week will be monitored for any appreciable improvement or drop-off. By the third week, a perception of the show’s performance, in the industry and among viewers, will have been established.

Lost in all this is that the “Late Night” audience is relatively small, and Letterman himself isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Where someone like Jay Leno is funny, Letterman more than anything else can be described as clever — a quality both more elusive to achieve and, when it’s done right, more rewarding.

O’Brien will not only have to introduce himself to America but also step out of Letterman’s shadow — unlike Leno’s ascension after Johnny Carson, a task made more difficult by Letterman’s continued presence on CBS.

Letterman, who had to carefully avoid slipping on the critics’ adoring drool during his critics-tour appearance, called the tapping of O’Brien “very exciting” and said NBC “did a really nice thing” in giving him the job.

Maybe so, but when the critical barrage begins, O’Brien may not feel that way.

TRADE TALKS: Those who follow the sports page as well as the trades know that Tom Werner, whose Carsey-Werner Co. is responsible for “Roseanne” and “The Cosby Show,” hasn’t exactly endeared himself to San Diego baseball fans.

That’s because Werner and an investor group own the San Diego Padres and have been cutting loose much of the team’s high-priced talent, claiming that it’s necessary to ensure the financial viability of the franchise.

The approach makes sense, but why limit it to baseball? With economic troubles plaguing network TV, there would seem to be room for Werner to pull off some high-powered deals while reducing payroll. To wit:

Trade Roseanne Arnold for Rosie O’Donnell and two standup comediennes to be named later.

Send John Goodman to “The John Larroquette Show” for Lenny Clarke and rights to standup comic and former “Uncle Buck” star Kevin Meaney.

Take “Roseanne” in a new direction by trading rights to Laurie Metcalf and Sara Gilbert (who’ll be in college and receive limited playing time next season anyway) to Columbia for Katey Sagal and Christina Applegate of “Married … With Children.”

Syndication rights to “The Cosby Show,” which has been on the wane in terms of ratings, could be dealt to Disney in exchange for “Dinosaurs,””Blossom,” all pre-Loni Anderson episodes of “Nurses” and free trips to Disneyland through 1997 .

We could be onto something here. Next week: How many shows NBC would have to give up for rights to “Home Improvement.”

BUT WHAT DO YOU REALLY THINK? William Devane livened an otherwise dull Monday press-tour session for the new ABC series “Phenom” with his direct analysis of the Primetime Emmy Awards.

Both Devane and producer James L. Brooks — whose respective series “Knots Landing” and “The Simpsons” were snubbed — were asked how they felt about the nominations.

Brooks was somewhat diplomatic, proclaiming “The Simpsons” victims of “looks-ism,” but Devane didn’t pull any punches, calling the Emmys “a bunch of shit” voted on by “a lot of people who are out of work.””Knots,” he added, is “not an industry show because real people watch it.” The actor also chided a critic for a stupid question and, asked about stealing scenes in the “Phenom” pilot, said, “That’s my job.”

Your day job, maybe. All we can say is, Phil, Oprah, Montel, watch out.

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