After five years spent patiently waiting for Jay Leno to abdicate the throne, it’s finally Conan O’Brien’s time to shine as the fifth host of NBC’s storied Tonight Show franchise. Although he got off to a somewhat shaky start during a tension-filled, torch-passing interview with
Colonel Kurtz Jay Leno on Friday night, one thing that Conan won’t be able to complain about is a lack of awareness. Not only has NBC been seeding commercials for Conan’s ascension across its network and cable properties for weeks, but early returns show that the Tonight Show finale scored the strongest Friday-night ratings of any show aired during Jay Leno’s seventeen-year run as host of the show. And, as Jay made sure to point out during his closing words, Conan is inheriting network television’s top-rated late-night program, one that generates some $100 million for NBC/Universal on an annual basis. Naturally, this realization has Conan more than a little bit nervous.
In an interview in today’s New York Times, Conan admits that his current state of mind is best summed up as “a swirly cone of some nerves, excitement. You’ve got to sprinkle a little bit of dread in there. You’ve got to sprinkle a lot of stuff in there and mush it all together.” While Conan is doing the right thing by remaining humble in public, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that he’s feeling the same sort of ashen dread that swept over him the first time he appeared on the show, back in April of 1993. He was assertive and confident when sitting at Jay Leno’s side on Friday night and dominated the conversation. And even if he doesn’t have his first monologue as Tonight Show host quite finished yet (he acknowledges that “we’ve been preparing a bunch of possible first jokes” and freely admits that you “can’t really do a topical monologue on the first night”), we would be hard-pressed to think that Conan will be anything other than incredibly well-prepared tonight; after all, considering Conan’s ability to turn out comedic gems on short notice, imagine what he’s got in store after having four months of prep time.
As for what kinds of bits we can expect to see tonight and the rest of this week, well, Conan’s been keeping most of that under his hat (except for those focus groups, which seem promisingly uncomfortable). That said, here’s what we know: Andy Richter will be on hand to introduce Conan as host, Will Ferrell will be his first proper interview, and Pearl Jam will be the musical guest. Aside from that, we can only assume that Conan will continue being Conan, which is to say, we can’t wait to see what he does with the opportunity. However, in the short term, what intrigues us most will not be the characters he introduces or the havoc he causes, but rather, what the heartland’s reaction is going to be to the lanky, whip-smart, and intellectual O’Brien. Especially considering how much they enjoyed being served up a Tonight Show that was essentially the polar opposite of that for the last seventeen years.