Tonight’s the night for Conan O’Brien. Been loving the NBC promos which goof on his move to California and his “pale Irish skin burning like a vampire in the sun”:

A lot has been made about Jay Leno stealing O’Brien’s thunder by sticking with NBC and returning in September with his prime time, five-nights-a-week series. This was jabbed home by none other than Conan’s guest Norm Macdonald in February, when he blurted the following (as chronicled at Aaron Barnhart’s TV Barn):

“He outfoxed you again!” Macdonald told the host as O’Brien winced. “Your agent’s like, ‘There’s good news and bad news. You are doing the “Tonight Show.” It’s true. But — remember that discussion we had where you said, “I’ll never have to f—ing follow Leno again?”’

Others have suggested that O’Brien is screwed. John Doyle in today’s Globe and Mail goes so far as to call tonight’s Tonight Show transition “the slow death of an institution.” he points out that NBC will go with three-and-a-half hours of comedy/talk every night this fall, with Leno in leadoff and Jimmy Fallon batting third.

Thus, The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien will soon be sandwiched between two other talk/variety shows. And, frankly, O’Brien is likely to be the baloney in the sandwich.

Why can’t the Irish just get along? Anyway, O’Brien has been dismissed as hopelessly over his head before–16 years ago, when he took over Late Night. He survived a bumpy first year-and-a-half beginning to ride an amazing, dozen-plus year winning streak at 12:35 (broken only down the final stretch as Craig Ferguson started gaining).
O’Brien is also the only guy who will ever replace both Jay Leno and David Letterman. Talk about big shoes to fill, as he joked with Leno last Friday night. No wonder he’s like to fill some little shoes next time.
Personally, I can’t wait for Conan to make Tonight his own. He’s operating out of a brand new playpen, a retro-fitted studio right on the Universal lot. It will be a noisy place, with twice as many audience members as his narrow old studio back at Rockefeller Plaza.
What goes on outside the studio may be more fun than what goes on inside. O’Brien is going to “screw with the trams” and other Universal Tour attractions, the kind of out in public stuff that Letterman used to do so brilliantly–but just does not do anymore.
That alone will separate these two shows and give Conan’s Tonight a new lease on life. It doesn’t matter that there will be greater competition for the same 18 stars who matter in Hollywood. Nobody watches Ferguson for the guests, you watch to spend time with Ferguson. Same with Kimmel. More and more, guests are becoming almost irrelevant on late night talk shows, not unlike contestants on American Idol or Survivor.
O’Brien’s show will be all about the funny, all about the sketches and the house players. He’s going to get bigger names just by virtue of being in Los Angeles as opposed to New York. But people will watch O’Brien to see Triumph the Insult Comedy Dog poop all over the Octomom or Susan Boyle, not whoever from The Hills.
Will Ferrell, who guests tonight, is perfect for O’Brien’s Tonight opener. He’s in-the-moment funny, comes ready to play. Improv guys know they can all “go there” with O’Brien.
The 46-year-old host’s big challenge tonight will be the monologue. Those 35-jokes-a-night from Leno became a fix for middle America and Leno knew it. O’Brien’s strength has never been the monologue but he’s been working on it and will likely have some zingers for tonight’s show. Just not 35 of them.
Which is fine. As O’Brien has said, the best advice he ever got was from Johnny Carson, who told him to just be himself. The sooner he is himself tonight the better.
I’ve written about O’Brien’s Tonight transformation at a couple of other places. Last Friday’s CP piece tells the bizarre story of O’Brien and buddy Greg Daniels trip to Vancouver in the early ’90s in search of an actor from The Beachcombers. As Jack Paar used to say, “I kid you not.”
For more details on what to expect from tonight’s debut, check out this piece in today`s TV section at MSNBC.
O’Brien`s other advantage is NBC’s affiliate strenth and its promotion department. Check out their teaser for Leno`s 10 p.m. sow this fall. These folks do it right:


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