Graceful transition at ‘Tonight’ show

Conan O'Brien preps for latenight move

Like Jay Leno did 17 years ago, Conan O’Brien takes over a “Tonight Show” franchise that dominates latenight.

But O’Brien must also now compete in a TV landscape dramatically different from the one Leno faced when he inherited “Tonight” in 1992.

There are not only more yakkers at the networks, but cablers such as Comedy Central and Cartoon Network now front competitive fare. Auds also are distracted these days by everything from YouTube and videogames to TiVo and Twitter.

And then there’s the fact that Leno will be doing his new primetime show 90 minutes earlier than anyone else, at 10 p.m.

“It’s June 1, 2009, and I’m hosting the ‘Tonight Show,’ ” O’Brien told reporters last week. “Don’t worry about what anybody else is doing or what time they’re at. I just have to do my thing, and do it to the best of my ability, and hope that good things come from that.”

In some ways, O’Brien comes to the “Tonight Show” better tested for the job than any of his predecessors. Unlike Leno, Carson, Jack Paar or originator Steve Allen, O’Brien arrives having already hosted a latenight show for 16 years.

Plus, despite the lingering question of whether O’Brien’s quirky comedy will resonate with older viewers at 11:35 p.m., it’s worth nothing that O’Brien, at 46, is older than any of his predecessors when they took the “Tonight” reins.

“The worst mistake I could make would be to overthink it,” O’Brien said of taking over “Tonight.” “I think it just has to be a funny show, and I need to worry about making June 1 funny, and then I have to worry about making June 2 funny, and then June 3 funny. If I do that, the audience will find it, and we’ll be OK.”

Whether O’Brien will maintain Leno’s “Tonight Show” dominance or whether Leno’s new 10 p.m. show will win over viewers is still anybody’s guess.

But for now, the hand-off from Leno to O’Brien — which culminates tonight with O’Brien’s first “Tonight” episode — couldn’t have gone more smoothly.

Indeed, if this weekend’s “Tonight Show” transition felt a little anticlimactic, that wasn’t by accident. And the lack of any real drama suits NBC latenight topper Rick Ludwin just fine.

“These things don’t happen that often,” Ludwin told Daily Variety last week. “Obviously, there’s a great responsibility to get it right.”

Ludwin knows from experience what it’s like when such things don’t go so well. He was at the Peacock in 1992 when the last “Tonight Show” switchover — Johnny Carson’s hand-off to Leno — wound up bruising egos and providing plenty of gossip fodder. Carson famously opted not to mention Leno on his final show — it was believed that Carson would rather have seen David Letterman succeed him — and Leno similarly failed to mention Carson on his first “Tonight.”

This “Tonight Show” shift is the culmination of a plan first put into motion five years ago — with a surprise twist along the way.

The 2004 plan was meant to keep O’Brien at NBC, but could have very well sent Leno packing. Instead, NBC managed to keep both hosts — a feat initially believed to be impossible to pull off — by floating the idea of a 10 p.m. strip to Leno.

Leno could have made a fuss over being pushed out of “Tonight” while still dominating the latenight ratings. And O’Brien could similarly have been annoyed at NBC’s decision to move Leno to 10 p.m., perhaps stealing some of O’Brien’s latenight thunder.

But as a credit to Leno and O’Brien — both considered class acts — neither cared to air any grievances in public.

Not only did Leno invite O’Brien on as his final “Tonight Show” guest on Friday, he more or less anointed his successor by urging his viewers to give O’Brien a chance.

“Please give Conan as much support as you’ve given me through the years,” Leno said at the end of his final “Tonight” show.

Of course, the smooth transition also means that viewers may be a bit confused over who’s hosting what show. Even NBC isn’t necessarily making that clear: Its marketing campaign for “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” includes the tagline “New time. Same hair.”

But wait a sec — it’s not a new time for “Tonight,” which is still at 11:35. It’s a new time for O’Brien, but the host and NBC have tried to make it clear that they’re not just transplanting “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” an hour earlier.

“It would be a shame to just dust off the ‘Late Night’ show and move it to 11:30,” O’Brien said. “It doesn’t feel right to do that.”

Meanwhile, if Leno’s still on before O’Brien, as usual, does the “Tonight Show” name carry the same heft as it would have if O’Brien kicked off the night’s talkers?

Unsurprisingly, Ludwin said yes.

“Viewers clearly know where the ‘Tonight Show’ is: It’s at 11:30,” Ludwin said. “Conan knows he has to adjust for 11:30. He is approaching the ‘Tonight Show’ the same way he approached the Emmys. He wanted to entertain the viewers without them having to know anything about what his 12:30 show was like.”

O’Brien has said that several elements of his former show will make the move, such as the comedy bit “Year 2000.”

O’Brien and his cohorts — including band leader Max Weinberg and just-returned sidekick-announcer Andy Richter — will produce episodes nonstop until August, when they’ll likely take a week off. In February, they’ll produce shortened episodes during the Winter Olympics. Ludwin said he’d also like to take “Tonight” on the road during O’Brien’s first year, but that the expense may hold them back.

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