The best way to make a familiar franchise your own is to start your tenure by doing something your predecessor never would have done.

Which Conan O’Brien proved Monday night. He opened the very first “Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” with a sketch in which he, having “forgotten” to move to Los Angeles, ran across the entire country.

Through the streets of New York and the Amish-filled fields of Pennsylvania he sped, taking a quick detour into Chicago’s Wrigley FieId, past the St. Louis arch, the Rockies, through Las Vegas, then into L.A., only to find the stage door at Universal Studios locked.


It was a funny, ambitious and surprisingly majestic sketch but, more important, it’s certainly something Jay Leno would never, ever do. He’s not a runner, is our Mr. Leno. In fact, it’s hard to picture him engaged in any physical activity more strenuous than a good belly laugh.

O’Brien, on the other hand, was a natural. In a suit and street shoes, his long arms and legs pumping in time to Cheap Trick’s “Surrender,” he was both a believable and hilarious long-distance runner.

He’s had to be, of course. Only Prince Charles has been subjected to a longer and more public audition.

But if Monday night is any indication, O’Brien is not as interested in filling Jay’s shoes as in buying a much newer pair. At 46, O’Brien may be the oldest man to assume the “Tonight Show” mantle, but with his Dennis the Menace hair and semi-guilty shifting eyes, he still looks like a kid who’s hijacked his older brother’s (very nice) suit.

And while many have wondered how O’Brien would play with the typically older demographic that formed Leno’s base, well, he certainly wasn’t going out of his way to court them last night.

Though he remembered to enthusiastically praise and thank his predecessor (something Leno “forgot” to do when he took over from Johnny Carson), that was as far as the torch-passing went. Between his jocular wingman Andy Richter, permanent man-boy Will Ferrell and musical guest Pearl Jam, O’Brien seemed to be embracing an audience much more attuned to Judd Apatow than Jack Paar.


“Liza’s going to win it, of course,” said Ferrell, explaining that he is nominated for a Tony Award in a category alongside Liza Minnelli. “And she deserves it. But I just want to say to the Tony voters: Liza is a Communist. A vote for Liza is like urinating on the flag.”

When he wasn’t tittering nervously at such Hollywood heresy, O’Brien managed to express his appreciation for his new, shiny and fabulously deco set at Universal on two separate occasions, though it seemed he could not wait to get out of it: first, by spoofing the local car culture with a montage of O’Brien cruising the City of Angels in his hot Ford Taurus, and then by taking one of the studio’s famous tour trams for a spin.

That’s a lot of local color for a late-night show, but then he had to make up for one of his opening jokes in which he pointed out that he was coming to the last-place network, in a state that’s bankrupt and on a show that’s sponsored by General Motors.

It’s one show, of course, and as O’Brien seems to know, show biz is a marathon, not a sprint.

But David Letterman better not rely too much on that “Only One Dave” campaign. Because there’s only one “Tonight Show” too, and now it belongs to Conan.