- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2004

NEW YORK - Florida in the winter is a natural road trip, but not to Conan O’Brien: He’s heading north this week, the second time NBC’s “Late Night” has ventured out of New York during his 10 years as host.

What began as an effort to boost the city’s tourism industry, still recovering from last year’s SARS outbreak, has become a celebration of Canada’s contribution to the entertainment industry.

Michael J. Fox, Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, “Will & Grace” star Eric McCormack and the bands Nickelback and Barenaked Ladies are among the Canadian acts that will appear on four nights of shows taped at Toronto’s Elgin Theater, beginning tomorrow.

“This isn’t about SARS anymore,” Toronto organizer Peter Soumalias said. “This is about stars.”

The idea originated at a cocktail party last summer following a music festival featuring the Rolling Stones that was held to help the recovery from SARS.

Mr. Soumalias’ immediate thought was “Saturday Night Live.” But when he talked about his idea with Mr. Myers, the comedian mentioned Mr. O’Brien and pointed him toward another party guest — Toronto native Lorne Michaels, who produces “Late Night” along with “Saturday Night Live.”

Mr. Michaels and Mr. O’Brien thought it was a great idea.

“I’d love to pretend that I’m doing this because I believe in helping Toronto,” Mr. O’Brien said. “But really what it is is that it makes sense for us. I really love the city.

“When you think about it, so much great talent comes out of Canada, particularly Toronto and Montreal.”

Not that he feels his show is in any rut, but Mr. O’Brien believes taking a road trip is healthy because it helps shake things up.

The only other such “Late Night” trip was a week in Los Angeles in 1999. In addition, fire chased “Late Night” from its studio one night in 1996. The show was also done from the Circle Line boat cruising around Manhattan in 1995.

“There is so much Canadian pride that has never had the opportunity to be put on display,” said Mr. Soumalias, founder of the Canadian Walk of Fame. “That’s why this is going to be huge.”

There were many times more ticket requests than could be accommodated in the 1,000-seat theater. Mr. O’Brien quipped that he wanted to “tell everybody that they’ve got a ticket and hope that there’s rioting.”

The trip has faced some criticism in Canada for its public financing. Ninety percent of the $1 million bill for moving “Late Night” for a week is being paid by the provincial and federal governments, the rest through private sponsorships.

A Canadian taxpayers group and the National Post newspaper, in an editorial, criticized the spending. A miffed Mr. Soumalias briefly tried to retaliate by barring the National Post from attending any of the tapings, but quickly backed down.

Mr. O’Brien doubts he would have been able to persuade NBC to pay $1 million for a trip to a city where viewership isn’t measured by Nielsen Media Research, so the trip would not have been possible without the money, he said.

He’s made a couple of trips to Toronto to shoot comedy footage and “I never run into anybody who is unhappy their tax dollars are being spent on this,” Mr. O’Brien said.

In one of his filmed comedy bits, Mr. O’Brien wears a Canadian Mountie uniform to patrol the border with the United States. “I’m getting a Tom Ridge commendation,” he said.

Mr. O’Brien, who has a 3-month-old daughter, Neve, at home, has a different reason for looking forward to a week away from home.

“I’m going to be in a hotel for five nights,” he said. “I’m going to really miss my wife and kid, but seven or eight hours straight of sleep will really be a nice thing.”

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