It’s been three months since Conan O’Brien left NBC’s “Late Night,” the show he’d hosted since 1993, to begin work on transitioning into his new role as host of “The Tonight Show.” O’Brien is only the fifth man to take the chair of “Tonight” since it began airing in 1954, but most of the chatter, rumor, and worry associated with his ascendancy to what many consider late-night TV’s throne revolved around two questions: Would he still be funny? Would the show change? The answer to both is the same: Yes, of course. O’Brien’s first show out of the gate on Monday was a pure blast of energy from one of the sharpest comedic minds in the game, and nothing was going to keep him doing a good show, his way.
But wondering if he would be able to step into the role of “Tonight Show” host not only underestimates his skill, it ignores the fundamental truth of late-night TV: People watch names, not brands. It wasn’t “Tonight Show” versus “The Late Show,” it was Jay Leno versus David Letterman. Jimmy Fallon is now the host of “Late Night,” but there’s really no such thing as “Late Night,” just Fallon’s show. He’s not hosting a new version of O’Brien’s show, just like O’Brien wasn’t hosting a new version of the show Letterman started. It’s the same with “Tonight Show.” This isn’t a regime change so much as it is a chance to let O’Brien work his magic one hour earlier. Put simply, you’re still watching Conan, and you’re still laughing.
The episode was packed with remotes — the taped pieces filmed on location — that O’Brien has had success with in the past, but the kickoff was fantastic: Having apparently forgotten to move to Los Angeles, he takes off running across the country, actually sprinting past everything from Wrigley Field to the St. Louis Gateway Arch before arriving at Universal Studios. It was a cute sequence that highlighted just great a role the themes of change, transition, and purported alienation are going to play in O’Brien’s material for a while, but it worked because, as always, O’Brien fully commits to the oddness of the humor and doesn’t attempt to hide his happiness. (He even did a brief version of the string dance that made my heart skip.) The same goes for the taped segment in which he co-hosted the tram tour through Universal Studios, then took the group on the road and bought them random gifts from the 99-cent store. It was insane and wonderful and completely Conan, and every moment was great. Will Ferrell made for a solid first guest, too, since all he and O’Brien had to do was hang out and riff a bit.
The only adjusting O’Brien will have to do will be to his new set. His old studio in Rockefeller Center was snug without being overly tight, a narrow blue rectangle of a room infused with Art Deco touches and medium lighting. He was perfectly framed at his desk, and the cityscape façade behind him looked like just that. It was homey, for lack of a better way to get a handle on the aesthetic. But his new set tries just a bit too hard to be grand, as if O’Brien needed his presence announced by angels. It’s a wide space that can feel cavernous, especially when O’Brien lands a joke and gets a big laugh from the almost 400 audience members. His old digs held just over 200 in the audience, making his new studio feel not unlike one of the traveling shows he used to do for week-long stints at universities. It’s bound to be tempting to play broader to a studio audience that’s double what it used to be, but O’Brien functions best when he can play to a controllable crowd.
Then again, I know it’s pointless to worry. O’Brien didn’t prove he could handle “The Tonight Show” on Monday; he proved it over the past 16 years. He’s on the air an hour earlier, but with the same energy and sense of humor; the theme song may sound amped up, but it’s the same tune. As O’Brien said when signing off from “Late Night” in the spring: “Sometimes I read that it’s time for Conan to grow up because he’s going to 11:30, and I assure you, that’s just not going to happen. I can’t. This is who I am, for better or worse.” He’s as good at this as he’s ever been. All we have to do is let him work.