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Conan's Proper Approach to NBC's "Tonight Show": Reverent Irreverence
May 27, 2009  | By David Bianculli
 

conan-obrien-television.jpgConan O'Brien participated in a conference call with TV reporters, critics and bloggers yesterday, and one thing stood out above all else. He described talking to designers about the new Tonight Show set he envisioned when he takes over as host next week, and he distilled his concept down to one word: "Elegant."

That, right there, says NBC's Tonight Show is in good hands...

O'Brien not only is aware of the history of TV's longest-running late-night talk show, but respects it. Steve Allen. Jack Paar. Johnny Carson. And, for the last 17 years, Jay Leno.

Tonight-Show-with-Jay-Leno-.jpg

Leno's final show is Friday (11:35 p.m. ET), and one of his guests on that final show is O'Brien, who says he doesn't expect to roast the host ("It's his night," O'Brien says simply). It's a peaceful, orderly changing of the guard, almost presidential in its formal embrace of succession. It's what might have happened when Carson left, had his favored pick to succeed him, David Letterman, been anointed by NBC instead of Leno.

So Leno, on Friday, will treat O'Brien the way Leno doubtlessly wished Carson would have treated him. And while Leno is popping up again in the fall, stealing a little thunder with a new prime-time talk show, Conan launches his version of The Tonight Show on Monday. His attitude, after months of waiting and planning, is an eager-to-burst-from-the-gate "Let's go do this."

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O'Brien is 46 years old now, about a decade younger than The Tonight Show itself. He's about to be in a different time slot, on a different show, and both he and the TV universe are markedly different than when he inherited Late Night from David Letterman 16 years ago. Judging from yesterday's comments, though, he fully comprehends the new major factors at play.

One, The Tonight Show is bigger than he is, and deserves a bit of reverence. Two, Conan O'Brien can succeed only by being himself, which means a bit of irreverence. Mix in equal portions, and he and The Tonight Show should do just fine.

When O'Brien was introduced to TV critics 16 years ago at a press conference, his first question was about NBC's Late Night franchise being turned over to a relative unknown. O'Brien pretended to take umbrage at the question, and insisted, "I am a COMPLETE unknown." I liked him at that moment, was one of the few critics supporting him early, and have enjoyed him ever since.

So long as he feels the legacy of The Tonight Show deserves an aura of elegance -- but still can make room for Triumph the Insult Comic Dog -- Conan O'Brien ought to do just fine.

 
 
 
 
 
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