Sunday, May 31, 2009

Will Conan succeed on "The Tonight Show"?!

It will come down to this for Conan O’Brien, at about 5 p.m. West Coast time Monday:

His old friend Andy Richter will swing into the opening announcement, intoning for the first time the words “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien,” and the star will stand behind the curtains of his stylish new set feeling the thrill run up his (extra-long) spine.

“That will be there for sure,” Mr. O’Brien said. “I’ve had those moments already of seeing a crate go by and it says ‘The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien’ on it, and I remind myself it’s unbelievable that I got here. It’s a Catholic word, but it’s a sin not to acknowledge something for at least a minute: Hey, you got this far.”

After 16 years making a name with his distinctive brand of intellectually silly comedy on NBC’s “Late Night” show, Mr. O’Brien, 46, ascends to the seat behind late night’s desk of destiny, just the fifth man to lead “Tonight,” after Steve AllenJack PaarJohnny Carson andJay Leno.

Nervous? “You have to be,” Mr. O’Brien said in an interview in the show’s new offices on the Universal studio lot. “It’s 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.” His executive producer, Jeff Ross, admitted to a sudden inability to sleep. “Usual nerves,” Mr. Ross said. “We’re feeling that thing where you’re confident, but you never really know.”

No one has to remind Mr. O’Brien and Mr. Ross how important this show is to NBC. It’s the flagship of late-night television, yes, but it has also been probably the biggest money machine ever in terms of network profits.

Things are different now, with so much competition in late night, fewer viewers available and tighter ad dollars. The business is changing rapidly; Mr. Leno is sliding to prime time in a move NBC expects will save millions in what it otherwise would spend on expensive scripted shows. And other shows now generate bigger annual profits than “Tonight,” among them NBC’s “Today” and Fox’s “American Idol.”

But “Tonight” still pumps an estimated $100 million into NBC every year, by far the most in late night.

“Late night has become even more important to NBC — and all the other networks — with the current economy and the changing business model of TV,” said Brad Adgate, the executive vice president for research at Horizon Media, a media-buying company.

He added that expectations for Mr. O’Brien were inevitably pitched extra high because of NBC’s heritage in late-night entertainment, a form that the network invented and still dominates, even with competitors like David Letterman on CBS.

“It would be a bitter pill if CBS began winning the time period or notably closing the ratings gap,” Mr. Adgate said. He added that he did not think that would happen, and that Mr. O’Brien would probably maintain NBC’s position in late night.

Mr. O’Brien isn’t taking the challenge lightly. He left his old show in February and has barely taken a deep breath since. “It’s the longest I’ve been off television, but it may be the hardest I’ve worked,” he said.

He said, however, that he was feeling more than ready. “It’s hard for people to contemplate,” he said. “They think of starting ‘The Tonight Show,’ and it’s natural they put themselves in the situation: ‘Oh jeez, I’d be so scared.’ But they’re a truck driver or a gynecologist. And the thing they seem to forget is Sept. 13, 1993, was a much bigger challenge.”

That was the day Mr. O’Brien emerged from being a self-described “complete unknown” to host of a national television show. “We have some stuff planned that I think is really good, and I’m excited to show it to people,” he said.

So what about Night 1? Is Joke 1 of the Conan era set in stone?

“We’ve been preparing a bunch of possible first jokes,” he said. “You can’t really do a topical monologue on the first night. It’s about this event, and we’re going to ease into that.”

He also said he was conscious of having a loaded lineup, with Will Ferrell and Pearl Jam. “We don’t want to choke the show with so much stuff,” Mr. O’Brien said.

But things will surely look different, starting with the set, which is big, blue, expansive — Johnny-like. The location is radically different from the Midtown Manhattan address Mr. O’Brien had when he was host of “Late Night,” but there is a touch of the classic 30 Rockefeller Center building in the Deco mural running along the set’s rim.

When he walks out, Mr. O’Brien said, his fans may be surprised. “I think the overwhelming feeling at first will be: ‘Oh, he’s got real lighting now.’ ” He said he had one word for what he wanted in a new set (besides better lighting): elegant.

“And they did that,” he said. “It’s very elegant.” But his fans shouldn’t worry: “You can still be a jackass in an elegant space.”

Mr. O’Brien expects to mine his personal dislocation for comedy. “I can’t go anywhere without people saying, ‘Good luck in L.A.’ Or, ‘What’s it like in L.A.?’ Osama Bin Laden is in a cave somewhere saying, ‘I wonder how Conan will be in L.A.’ ”

Mr. O’Brien said the move would definitely affect the show. “It should be different,” he said. “The only way to survive in television is to reinvent yourself.”

He added, “I can’t radically remake my personality, but this should change me in ways that I changed during the ‘Late Night’ show — in ’93, and ’96 and ’98. What’s nice is there does seem to be something funny about me being in L.A. It’s almost like a sight gag that I’m in L.A.”

As for how he hopes to fare in the densely crowded late-night (with a touch of prime time) solar system, Mr. O’Brien said: “There is a period of realignment now. These things aren’t decided in a night; they’re not decided in a week. It’s a marathon. We’re going to bring some people with us to the show, and we’re going to have to find some new people, and it’s not all going to happen right away. But I’m interested in getting to that part. Let’s go do that part.”



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