Conan O'Brien's Historical Debut: This isn't Your Grandma's Tonight Show - Give Me My Remote : Give Me My Remote

Conan O’Brien’s Historical Debut: This isn’t Your Grandma’s Tonight Show

June 2, 2009 by  

Navigating the waters of late night television is a monumental task. The iconic performers who have sustained us through countless evenings hover in rarified air. Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and Jay Leno are not simply recognizable names. They are elite brands with millions of loyal customers. Considering how difficult it is for parents to settle their newborn babies to sleep, it is fitting that the audience is cautious when it comes to choosing the last voice we want to hear before we fade into tomorrow.

Conan O’ Brien took control of The Tonight Show last night, entrusted with the most valuable real estate that follows your late local news. Far from his lofty perch at 30 Rockefeller Center, O’ Brien tiptoed onto his brand new stage at Universal Studios attempting to succeed where many have stumbled. Is Conan’s face destined for a place on the Mount Rushmore of Late Night Hosts, or will his Tonight Show fall victim to the pratfalls that sunk familiar faces like Chevy Chase, Magic Johnson, and Pat Sajak?

Unlike many of the Tuesday Morning Quarterbacks who will be quick to praise or bury Conan’s maiden voyage, I believe that the marathon of late night cannot be judged at a sprinter’s speed. Last night’s effort will be ultimately judged alongside hundreds of others in Conan’s body of work. In the meantime, the useful discussion is how this version of the Tonight Show will depart from the tried and true formula utilized by its predecessor.

In just 72 hours, the comedic sensibility of NBC’s franchise has shifted. Where Jay Leno was topical, Conan O’ Brien is farcical. While Jay was the man on the street, Conan is the dude who hijacks a Universal Studios tour group. If you enjoyed hearing unintentionally humorous local headlines, you may want to brace yourself for the imminent appearance of a foul-mouthed insult comic dog. It is not a question of better or worse, simply a realization that this is not your parents’ Tonight Show any longer.

For me, the biggest question facing Conan’s crew is how many loyal viewers of Jay Leno will turn away from this younger, more playful brand of comedy. No matter what movie star or rock band is sharing the stage on a particular night, the late night audience is irrevocably linked to their host. How welcome will Leno’s most adamant supporters feel in O’ Brien’s comedy kitchen?

I have no answers, only a healthy curiosity about what the next year will bring to one of network television’s most enduring franchises.

What did you think of Conan’s first night? For longtime fans, did you notice any difference in his presentation? If you were sampling the new Tonight Show, will you be coming back in the days and weeks to come? Did you enjoy the pre-taped comedy pieces? I am eager to read your feedback on this historic broadcast!

In case you missed it, here’s part of Conan’s cold open:

How does Erik combat writer’s block? He indulges in Adam Carolla’s new daily podcast at and reads Bill Simmons’ columns on Along with covering Parks & Recreation and House for GMMR, Erik is attempting to navigate the addictive world of Twitter (@FreelanceErik). Follow him, won’t you?


9 Responses to “Conan O’Brien’s Historical Debut: This isn’t Your Grandma’s Tonight Show”

  1. SB on June 2nd, 2009 10:42 am

    Well, I am madly in love with Conan and I will not miss Jay at all, including while I’m never watching his stupid new show.

    My only thing was that I came in after the Andy Richter era, and I wish there had been more Max and less Andy, but I’m still keeping an open mind. I’ll love Conan forever and I’m loyal to the bitter end. He’s so effing hilarious.

  2. Conan O’Brien’s Historical Debut: This isn’t Your Grandma’s Tonight Show | Joe Hosting on June 2nd, 2009 11:21 am

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  3. Give Me My Remote on June 2nd, 2009 11:26 am

    I’m with SB. As a long time Conan fan I’m excited that I don’t have to stay up as late to see his show. I don’t really know that much about some of the “traditional” late night demographics outside of what I’ve read, but comedy is comedy. The people that are staying up late enough to watch Leno will probably like Conan. Maybe they just need a little bit more time.

    With everything going on last night I don’t think we saw a “normal” Conan show.

    I’m excited to check him out every night!!

  4. Kimber on June 2nd, 2009 12:39 pm

    As a Leno/Ferguson late night fan, I was never much into Letterman or Conan. If I managed to stay awake long enough, I’d usually watch Jay’s monologue, as well as whatever stint he performed before the first guest. I can honestly say after last night, I won’t be watching latenight television at 10:35 pm. Nothing against Conan, or his style, but he’s just not my thing, nor has he ever been. I’ll give Leno’s “other show” a try, but perhaps for me late night will just be starting and ending with Craig Ferguson from now on.

  5. strunkette on June 2nd, 2009 2:53 pm

    I liked it. Everyone was speculating that he would adopt the monologue ala Leno, but I like that he stayed true to his brand of humor. I loved the tour group highjacking. I think Conan will find his way.

  6. JennyL on June 2nd, 2009 6:32 pm

    Big Conan fan and was very pleased with his first show last night! Seemed very naturally Conan, but did feel like a bigger show. I will be watching for sure!!

  7. Erik on June 3rd, 2009 12:16 am

    Kath: The general feeling is that a large cross-section of Leno’s older viewers (age 49+) are too familiar with the Carson/Leno format, specifically the first two segments of a topical monologue and live comedy piece at the desk, to accept wholesale changes. So long as Conan’s core audience of 18-49 viewers grows, NBC will have no problem selling the show to advertisers. The public relations problem is if those older viewers leave abruptly, and Nightline (and to a lesser extent, Letterman) becomes a viable rival as the “#1 Program in Late Night.”

  8. Erik on June 3rd, 2009 12:31 am

    SB: I am in complete agreement with you about Andy Richter. One of the “concessions” that Conan could make to the older audience referenced above would be to have Andy serve in a similar role to Ed McMahon. I am curious to know whether Richter is perceived as too “wacky” for the NBC suits, who have always believed that an 11:30 audience is vastly different than the 12:30 crowd.

    Ironically, the college-age viewers who propelled Conan to success in the Late Night time slot are now the parents and professionals who are critical to keeping the new Tonight Show on top. It goes to show that TV executives are rarely inclined to break with tradition, even with an entirely new cast of characters.

  9. Erik on June 3rd, 2009 1:28 am

    Kimber: Craig Ferguson is an interesting character, and perhaps the person with the most to gain from the Leno/O’ Brien transition. If/when David Letterman chooses to leave The Late Show, it would be fascinating to see Ferguson go head to head with Conan. Unlike his peers, the Late Late Show host appears to conduct interviews in a freewheeling manner, unbound by index cards and pre-interview talking points.

    Which of Craig Ferguson’s traits bring you back to CBS each night?