- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 2, 2009

In his much-anticipated debut Monday night as host of the “The Tonight Show,” Conan O’Brien served up a kinder, gentler version of his signature comic absurdism on a show packed with thank yous and call-outs to predecessors and colleagues.

After 16 years and more than 2700 episodes as the face of NBC’s “Late Night,” Mr. O’Brien finally took the reins of the network’s flagship late night talk show, following in the footsteps of a select company of iconic forerunners, including Johnny Carson and, since 1992, Jay Leno.

Mr. O’Brien is an oddball comic whose quirky style was honed in the pages of the satirical college paper, the “Harvard Lampoon,” and, later, as a staff writer for “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons.” He was not always an obvious choice for the more straightlaced “Tonight Show” role. But since his 1993 “Late Night” debut, he’s acquired a loyal audience in the wee hours time slot following Mr. Leno.

His accession takes him not just to the earlier 11:30 p.m. time slot and its larger audience, but to the West Coast, a move dramatized at the show’s beginning with a goofy cross-country run from his old New York digs to his new location: Across Wrigley field, across the Vegas strip, past the Capitol Records building, and finally, with the aid of a bulldozer, into the brand new L.A. studio that will be his home on most weeknights for the foreseeable future.

Mr. O’Brien’s monologue contained the usual winking, nudging, side-stepping and off-the-cuff banter. Andy Richter, Mr. O’Brien’s longtime sidekick, has taken over the announcer spot and, with it, the job of providing unscripted repartee during the monologue, a duty previously performed by band leader Max Weinberg, who remains on the show.

Naturally, there was plenty of genial self-mockery as well. Professing to have watched Johnny Carson in his youth and having longed to fill his shoes, Mr. O’Brien suggested that, these days, a young child watching his shows might instead think, “What is WRONG with that man’s hair?”

Mr. O’Brien’s hair - a stiffly gelled, stand-up swoop that arcs like a courtyard fountain - remains both strange and funny, but, in a departure from the host’s prior work, it was probably the weirdest thing about the show.

There were hints of his well-known obscurantism: After announcing that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had recorded a special message for his debut, the show cut to a clip of Mrs. Clinton, taken out of context from a long-ago speech, simply saying “Hello.” “She’s busy, you know?” Mr. O’Brien shrugs, and that’s the only explanation we get or need.

Other jokes were not nearly so pleasantly mysterious: A brief appearance by model Fabio is labeled as such, for those who don’t recognize him. And a would-be clever crack conflating a flooded movie set with the Octomom’s water breaking falls flat on delivery.

Meanwhile, Mr. O’Brien’s usual flair for inventively idiosyncratic skits was nowhere to be found. The only notable excursions outside were a rambling tour of L.A. in a beat-up Taurus and a visit to a movie studio backlot tour that Mr. O’brien hijacked in order to provide his own made-up commentary, most of which came off as half-hearted.

Still, appearances by guest-rockers Pearl Jam and comedian Will Ferrell kept the show moving briskly. Mr. Ferrell, a comic whose rhythms depend in large part on his projecting arrogance and obliviousness, proved an effective foil to Mr. O’Brien’s hyper self-awareness.

And of course, there were obligatory acknowledgements of those who helped create the show and those who came before — Leno, Carson, Richter, the people who created the sets. That’s understandable on a first show, but in order to be a success, Mr. O’Brien will have to move beyond the nods to his predecessors and find a rhythm of his own.

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