Conan O'Brien played it safe in his debut as host of NBC's Tonight Show
That's a good choice, actually. The big question is: Will it last?
As I noted in an article reporting on NBC's choice of personable Saturday Night Live alum Jimmy Fallon to host its Late Show
as O'Brien moved to the Tonight Show
, Fallon was closer to the style that had worked so well for the latter program in the past: intelligent, likable, and not too challenging or edgy.
O'Brien, I noted, was much less winsome and much more ambitious in his comedy, and for the Tonight Show
to have success, either he or the audience would have to change, with the latter being highly unlikely except through serious shrinkage. And of course that would be a disaster for the Peacock Network.
Fallon has done well at Late Night
since taking the reins on March 3, in both entertainment value and audience ratings
. Late Night
appears to be in very capable hands, and although it's simply a timewaster, that's all it is intended to be, while delivering consistent audience numbers for NBC's advertisers.
Exercising the better part of valor, O'Brien kept the masturbating bears and foul-mouthed puppets out of the picture during his debut as Tonight Show
host last night. Building on former Tonight
host Jay Leno's established practice of supplementing his monologue with pre-recorded video segments (and on O'Brien's own approach at Late Night)
, O'Brien played to his strengths--interviewing and clever writing--and minimized his weaknesses as a joke-teller and personality.
Like Leno before him, O'Brien played the straight man instead of trying to be a comic actor as Carson had done so successfully over the years. O'Brien's choice to let guest Will Farrell get the laughs during their interview segment was correct, and he even served as the butt of Farrell's extended joke about O'Brien's chances of succeeding in the show. Very smart.
O'Brien's debut episode featured a new, sleek set with the obligatory urban skyline background, and it projected a greater sense of intimacy than Leno's setting. It's another step in the program's evolution from a broadcast of a theatrical show, as it was during Carson's tenure, into something more obviously designed expressly for television.
That, too, reflects a change from the show's glory years.
Under Carson, everything about the program marked it as a central stopping point for American show business, your place to go to find out what was going on in the American culture. Under Leno's tenure the Tonight Show
continued its evolution from being a very good window on the culture, which Carson had made it during his best years as host, into just another thing to watch if you wanted to.
It is difficult to imagine O'Brien restoring to the Tonight Show
the kind of value it once had, but if he keeps on its current, humble course, it could turn out to be an enjoyable and nontoxic timewaster. That amounts to a positive accomplishment in today's culture.
--S. T. Karnick, editor of The American Culture