Conan Night One: Clever, but More Misses Than Hits

Occasionally, showbiz folk become a little too enamored with the hoopla surrounding their programs, getting caught up in all the media buzz. So it was with the premiere of “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien,” which gave off the impression of a college student who had too much time to study and basically over-crammed for the big test.

With months of prep time, O’Brien loaded up Monday night’s debut hour with taped pieces and L.A.-centric bits. A few of them worked — his energetic opening, running across America to make his debut; or shanghaiing a Universal Studios tour tram and taking it into the local neighborhood — but just as many of them didn’t, such as Conan sitting in the rafters at a Lakers game.

The monologue was, dare I say it, a little too Leno-esque, with an overly broad gag about Vice President Joe Biden and a jab at the Los Angeles Clippers. There was also a fairly obvious slap at the cruel fates assailing both last-place NBC and bankrupt California, but at least that felt appropriate to the occasion.

Conan In terms of a smooth start, it didn’t help that O’Brien’s first guest, Will Ferrell, basically played his whole segment as an extended comedy routine, never engaging the host in anything that approached genuine conversation. Nor does the new format make much use of sidekick Andy Richter — who stood near the studio audience — though one suspects that his role will evolve over time, as it did during his stint on “Late Night.”

On the plus side, the new set looks great. Now O’Brien has to settle into it, and settle down by playing to his established strengths and silencing any of that nagging “fifth ‘Tonight Show’ host in history” voice in the back of his head. Yes, the new L.A. venue represents a departure from New York, but how many gags about stealing letters off the Hollywood (or make that “Hollywoo”) sign can you really do?

Notably, across the dial, David Letterman weighed right in with several jokes about the switch-over happening at NBC. He opened by wryly stating that he had “knocked off another competitor,” and insinuated that his mother, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il and Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor would all be watching Conan — at least on Monday. He even threw in a little Jay Leno impersonation (as did O’Brien), before quipping in regard to his new timeslot rival, “I know that years ago, he killed a guy.”

O’Brien will surely be sampled by those curious to see how he looks in the new digs, but the bottom line is there’s no reinventing the wheel. And for all the self-effacing lines about losing round one, my guess is that Letterman is feeling reinvigorated, sensing that after trailing Leno for so many years he has a chance to reclaim the latenight ratings crown that he once possessed.

Those are also precisely the kind of considerations that O’Brien needs to zone out right now. OK, so he’s made his headlong sprint from New York to L.A. Now it’s time to hunker down for what amounts to a marathon.

“Tonight Show” Night Two guest: Tom Hanks. Stay tuned. I’ll be updating throughout the week.

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