Guests: John Goodman, Drew Barrymore, Tony Randall.
With: Tom Brokaw, George Wendt, Bob Costas.
While the opening night of latenight newcomer Conan O’Brien was far from an unqualified success, it at least shows promise. Host has his own distinctive style, and is more viewer-friendly than Jay Leno, less acerbic than David Letterman. Chief obstacle so far is O’Brien’s all-but-overwhelming nervousness; once he gets over that, the 12:35 slot could prove to be a comfortable, entertaining way to end the evening — or, for those who keep really late hours, an appetizer for Bob Costas’ fans.
O’Brien, a newcomer to performing before a live audience, took every opportunity Monday night to kid his inexperience, beginning with a show-opening montage following him from bed, through the day, to the studio. Every stop along the way, someone would remind him that he was embarking on a near-hopeless task: When he stopped at a newsstand, the dummied-up New York Post headline read “Conan Had Better Be Good.”
Tom Brokaw’s walk-on (“I just wanted to be the first to welcome you to NBC”) provided a nice counterpoint to his spot on David Letterman’s CBS premiere last week.
Show went largely downhill during live segments, with prepared material — such as a bit lambasting Letterman and Leno’s “Small Town News” and “Headlines” segments — coming off far better than ad-libbed sequences.
The monologue was weak, with a couple of OK lines (friends ridiculed him, “The day you get your own talkshow is the day there’s peace in the Middle East”) and too much dead air.
First guest John Goodman proved to be a good sport. He indulged the host’s inane questions about upcoming “Flintstones,” saved a bit that compared him to Mr. Potato Head, and demonstrated leg-wrestling with cameo guest George Wendt.
Drew Barrymore may have drawn more attention with her nouveau Tuesday Weld hair and makeup than for anything she said, and Tony Randall proved his usual prickly self, deriding the leg-wrestling segment, which O’Brien then defended as being amusing if only to himself.
“When you pander to your audience, that’s no good,” allowed Randall in mock affirmation. “You should stick to your artistic conscience, such as it is, and do what amuses you.”
Stage set has a nice ’50s feel, and former Springsteen drummer Max Weinberg leads a powerful, R&B/swing-influenced band. Sidekick Andy Richter jumped in with a few good lines. Closing sequence — O’Brien bringing members of the audience, including a nun and a Nazi, to tears with his rendition of “Edelweiss” from “The Sound of Music”– vied with opening montage as opening show’s strongest moment. O’Brien’s overall good nature and obtuse sense of humor may be his most effective attributes when the rough spots are overcome.