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Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show Debut: In the Year 2009…

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Conan O’Brien’s first Tonight Show guest, Will Ferrell, welcomed the new host last night in fitting, if exaggerated, fashion. “No one thought you could do it! No one!” Ferrell gushed. “It’s Conan O’Brien. What? What? That guy? Literally, no one thought you could do it! No one! Not one person, and you’re here!”

Even a Conan fan–especially a Conan fan–can see where he was coming from. There’s still something about Conan’s taking over the show that’s like his old Late Night “In the Year 2000″ sketches. When his transition was announced five years ago, 2009 sounded like a ridiculous date from science-fiction. Yeah, sure, they’ll let Conan take over from Jay Leno… in the year 2009! Now it’s here, and yet it still seems like the impossible future. They can’t actually be letting Conan host the Tonight Show! (See pictures of Jay Leno.)

Still, it’s been 16 years since Conan’s takeover of Late Night from David Letterman, and he’s come a long way from the nervous comedy writer he was then. The guy we saw on the Tonight Show stage was polished, off-the-cuff funny, dapper, poised—but not, substantively, all that different from the Conan of Late Night. (He even gave a trademark herky-jerk dance move as he came on stage.) The question: has Conan O’Brien grown big enough for 11:30, or has 11:30 grown small enough for Conan O’Brien? (Read a brief history of The Tonight Show.)

There’d been a lot of talk about how much Conan would have to change his absurd style of comedy to fit a supposedly stodgier 11:30 crowd. And sure, there was no Masturbating Bear. (We’ll see about the second night!) But what Conan’s first Tonight Show did, mainly, was to take the old Conan and simply scale him up, placing him, literally and figuratively, on a bigger stage.

That was part the beauty of the opening sketch, in which Conan forgot to move to L.A. for opening night and was forced to run across the country. It made for a lot of great sight gags—the Amish staring at him, his checking out a doll museum (“It’s cornsilk!”). But it also, visually, transitioned New York Conan into Los Angeles Conan, taking him out of the close, tight environment of NYC (and, by extension, the nichier audience of Late Night) and brought him into the wide open spaces.

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The stage he landed on was similarly full of messages. It was bigger than his Late Night set, airier, more L.A. But it also–like Conan’s old set–had a golden-age-of-TV feel; really, it was more of a Carson set than Leno’s was. It was decorated in a West Coast version of the Art Deco motifs of NBC’s 30 Rock headquarters, where Conan did Late Night for years. Max Weinberg was there, on the skins, and was Andy Richter—although stuck behind a podium where the show does not yet seem to know what to do with him. (Great to see him back, but he seemed like he should be reading College Bowl questions.) (See pictures of Judd Apatow’s war on Jay Leno.)

Conan’s first monologue was sharp if not gut-busting, but more important, it was competent. He ad-libbed off the audience’s rabid cheering (“Please. It’s coming across as angry now. At least we know the applause sign works”) and got off a self- and network-deprecating zinger: “I’ve timed this perfectly. I’m on a last-place network, I moved to a state that’s bankrupt, and tonight’s show is sponsored by GM.”

Then there were comedy bits–lots of them–and none of them would really have been out of place on a Late Night. Most played on the fish-out-of-water comedy we can expect the show to milk for a while. Conan cruised L.A. in his ’92 Taurus, where he got in a lowrider contest and made a woman pregnant just by looking at her. And he hijacked a Universal Studios tour tram, taking it on a Speed-style ride to a 99-cent store. (“If we go fast enough, we can travel back in time! We can save Abraham Lincoln!”)

Not all the comedy worked: the bit about stealing the ‘D’ from the Hollywood sign seemed like the first L.A. prop gag someone would throw out in a writers’ room. And the interviews? It remains to be seen, since his one guest, Ferrell, mainly held forth on his own.

But it was a funny hour overall, and left little doubt that Conan is no wet-behind-the-ears newbie. Is he going to win over all of Leno’s audience? No. Never. (They may just drift to Leno’s 10 p.m. show, which Conan took a dig at: “He’s going to be coming back on the air, I think in two days.”) Nor should he try to. The most important thing about Conan’s first show was how committed it was to being Conan’s show, not some focus-grouped idea of What America Wants at 11:30. (See Conan’s commencement speech.)

The Conan we saw on stage last night knows that he’s the big man at the big desk, leading the big show. But he also seems to know that staying there will mean staying true to the oddball comedy writer who ambled onto NBC 16 years ago. We’ll just have to see if America’s willing to go on the tram ride with him. As he said on the Universal tour: want to see what this baby can do? (See the 100 best TV shows of all time.)

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