After numerous years of Jay Leno, whose departure from The Tonight Show has been well chronicled, as will his new NBC primetime program, last night marked the first Tonight Show of a new era. Tonight, The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien premiered. The big question about the show, would Conan's comedy at 11:30 be the same edgy brand he delivered at 12:30, was answered… at least for a little while.
As a fan of Conan and his years on Late Night, I'm happy to report that his version of The Tonight Show did not shy away from the sort of humor that made Conan and his old show popular. One of the first jokes he did during his monologue not only took a swipe at NBC, but also the show's sponsor, GM, and the state of California's massive budget deficit. Better than that though was later in the monologue when Conan took swipes at his own semi-celebrity and alleged would-be creep status.
The cold open, a pre-taped bit (viewable below), featured a worried Conan realizing that he had forgotten to move to L.A. to host the show. We then got to see Conan running across various parts of the United States on a cross-country trip, including him running on the field (and getting in trouble for it) at Wrigley. In a later taped piece, Conan "helped out" on a Universal Studios backlot tour and convinced the driver to not just drive in circles for no reason but also into going onto Los Angeles surface streets and stopping at a 99-cent store to buy stuff for the folks on the tour. It was certainly classic Conan and something his Late Night audience has come to expect. The in-studio audience was certainly into the bit, and supposedly unprompted, started chanting "circle, circle" as the bit ended.
In possibly the funniest moment of the night, Conan's first act behind the desk was not only to thank Leno for taking care of the franchise, but also to caricature him.
Conan's first guest was Will Ferrell, who also appeared in Conan's final Late Night, and tonight wasn't necessarily tame either. While Ferrell opted not to do his slutty stripper leprechaun thing (I'm not sure whether that's a positive or a negative), he did get carried onto the set, called Liza Minnelli a communist in order to win some Tony votes, and sang a goodbye song for Conan and the show. While Ferrell was funny and having an A-lister like Ferrell as a first guest is always good, it doesn't guarantee the show will be a success. Though few remember the short-lived series, Will Ferrell was John McEnroe's first guest on the tennis star's CNBC primetime chatter, McEnroe (Sting also appeared in that episode). Certainly however, no one believes that Conan's Tonight Show will disappear in the same six months it took for McEnroe to go off the air.
Also appearing tonight was the band Pearl Jam, and happily, back with Conan was Andy Richter. Richter, who was originally Conan's sidekick on Late Night but left the series several years ago, is back with him now in the role of announcer on The Tonight Show.
Conan's first episode on The Tonight Show was the sort of truly funny, often but not always well thought out, show that fans of Conan have come to expect and which NBC must have been hoping for. It was a great beginning and hopefully Conan's show won't disappear quite as quickly as either he or Will Ferrell joked it would.