The fifth host of “The Tonight Show” took his place last night as Conan O’Brien launched his reign, succeeding Jay Leno, Johnny Carson, Jack Parr and Steve Allen.
If you saw it, you know that there were several stunts, stars, gags, guests, and a great joke or two. But he did one thing that made me love the premiere most and made we want to watch again: he hearkened back not to Jay Leno’s style but to Johnny Carson’s. Having grown up a few blocks from Johnny’s set and having gone to sleep many nights after Johnny’s monologue, my favorite two moments were the ones that felt the most familiar:
First, Conan had to have a great early joke, and he nailed it: “I’ve timed this moment perfectly,” he said in that deadpan style that made Carson so wonderful and winsome. “I’m on a last-place network, I moved to a state that’s bankrupt, and tonight’s show is sponsored by General Motors.”
Second, he brought along Max Weinberg as his band leader. Max is more like Doc Severinson (I know I’m dating myself here!) than Kevin Eubanks ever was, even though I thought Kevin was cool and he totally fit the Jay show vibe. But Conan is taking the show back to a prior root and Max is perfect for it. He is more musician than personality, and known more outside of the show than within it. Doc was both.
In the end, I could do without all of the goofy stunts Conan brought with him, but hey, perhaps Johnny’s “Karnak” and his other stunts were similar for that era.
In the end, I miss Jay and hope his show does well. I find him funnier and a better comedian than Conan. But he never moved past the show with that “friend in your living room” quality that Johnny had untilhis last show after 17 years. Conan took a strong step in that direction in his first show, and I hope it’s a sign of things to come. If I want a night of comedy, I’d choose Jay. But since he’s moving to 10 p.m. and since Conan’s show will continue at 11:30, I’m going to hope he does well. And, who knows, perhaps he could even develop an inspirational angle which I haven’t seen yet. Crazier things have happened on his shows!