Set to work on his new timing

Conan O’Brien knows he’s supposed to be angry. Everyone assumed he’d be steamed that his promotion to “The Tonight Show” host chair has been upstaged by you-know-who. But O’Brien doesn’t really do steamed, at least not publicly. This is a guy, after all, who made his name with nonsensical comedy bits involving naughty bears, celebrity photo gags and silly predictions.

Conan the talk-show host makes fun of himself. He doesn’t engage in juicy showbiz spats.

“It just doesn’t mesh with my personality,” O’Brien said at his new office in Universal City, where the new “Tonight Show” premieres Monday. “I’m not an antagonistic personality who wants to battle it out with someone and trade barbs with them over the air.”

Yes, but what about all the pressure? He’s taking over a fabled 55-year-old NBC institution from the No. 1-rated Jay Leno, just as the entire broadcast industry is under threat from swooning ad revenues and audiences. And then the network stole O’Brien’s PR thunder last year by announcing a prime-time show for Leno -- five nights a week!


Don’t even start. O’Brien has launched against extreme odds before, back in 1993, when he was a surprise choice to succeed David Letterman as host of the New York-based “Late Night.” His previous show-business experience consisted of writing stints on shows like “The Simpsons” and “Saturday Night Live.” NBC had so little faith in him as a long-term asset that it gave him renewals for nothing longer than 13 weeks at a time.

Earlier this year, he finally wrapped a successful nearly 16-year run on the program, which has since been taken over by Jimmy Fallon.

“I do have people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, it’s a lot of pressure. What about the ratings?’ ” he said of his new gig. “And I say, ‘You know what? You’re talking to the wrong guy.’ I’m like Clint Eastwood in ‘Hang ‘Em High.’ They hanged me at the beginning of the movie, I somehow lived, and now I’m back again!”

The great unknown is how the 46-year-old, Boston-born O’Brien will change “The Tonight Show.” O’Brien realizes that change is inevitable. “Tonight” will not be the same show he was doing in New York. It can’t be. But not even O’Brien knows exactly how the program will be different.

“My ‘Tonight Show’ is probably going to be different six months in,” he said, “because I’ll have responded to, ‘Oh, man, it really works when we do that thing in the parking lot.’ ‘Oh, my God, let’s never, ever, ever go out to Lankershim again.’ ‘Hey, that thing we did at the burrito stand was fantastic.’ ‘Good God, what were we thinking when we crashed through Gov. Schwarzenegger’s skylight without telling him first?’ ”

He will be the program’s fifth host, after Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Leno. While still cultivating a college-age fan base -- and maintaining the air of the Harvard Lampoon cutup he once was -- O’Brien will nevertheless be the oldest person to become host of “Tonight.”

Like Leno, O’Brien is a native East Coaster who is taking over what has become the quintessential West Coast talk show. Unlike Leno, though, he is a doing so at a time of tremendous turmoil in broadcasting, with late-night viewers fleeing to cable alternatives such as Adult Swim and “The Colbert Report” and analysts questioning the viability of the network-affiliate model that allowed Carson and Leno to reign supreme in after-hours viewing.

For most of the last 15 years, Leno has handily beat Letterman in head-to-head competition. For the current season, “Tonight” averaged 5.2 million total viewers, compared with 3.8 million for “Late Show,” according to Nielsen Media Research. (Analysts, advertisers, journalists and the competition will be watching closely to see any sign of O’Brien losing ground.)


It’s an enormous challenge, to which O’Brien responds, as is his custom, with a joke. “My real goal is to ruin ‘The Tonight Show’ so no one else can ever do it again,” he said with a smile. “I want to be the fifth and last ‘Tonight Show’ host. I want to irradiate it. The government’s going to come in and say, ‘No one can come here for 35 years.’ ”


Staking out new ground

Leno’s “Tonight” was taped at NBC’s old headquarters on Alameda Avenue in Burbank. The new set is three miles southwest, on the Universal lot. Viewers will see the familiar talk-show fixtures: a paneled desk, orange sofas and a Los Angeles skyline marked by the Capitol Records building. The designers alluded to O’Brien’s Manhattan past by planting an illuminated Empire State Building in the backdrop behind the band, which as on “Late Night” will be led by drummer Max Weinberg.


Upstairs, O’Brien’s office contains various toys and gag gifts, including an action figure of Abraham Lincoln, one of O’Brien’s lifelong heroes. Throughout the day, the host will doodle on his brown desk blotters with impressively rendered cartoons; an assistant will then file the used blotters. (“If I ever do go on a rampage, they’re gonna want to study these,” he said.) Behind his desk, three guitars rest upright on stands, including a Gretsch White Penguin electric that the White Stripes gave him as a gift.

A corkboard holds pinned index cards with some of the bits proposed for O’Brien’s first week on “Tonight.” One has the host showing viewers the improbably flattering mug shot on his new California driver’s license. Another imagines O’Brien accosting passersby on the studio lot and elsewhere in a vehicle tricked out to look like his talk-show desk.

During the old “Late Night,” O’Brien and Andy Richter, his cherubic sidekick in the program’s early years, did a similar routine, except entirely in the studio, with a desk and a green-screen special effect. Under O’Brien, the 12:35 a.m. program became famous for off-the-wall humor that resonated with college audiences. The comedy was at once silly yet sophisticated, well informed but seldom topical. It may be a hard mix to pull off on “Tonight,” which during the Carson and Leno tenures depended heavily on political jokes and headline humor.

Regular “Late Night” characters included the Masturbating Bear, an animal devoted to self-pleasure that was for some reason clad in a diaper. In another bit, O’Brien and Richter (later, O’Brien and guests) would don futuristic attire and make predictions about events that would take place in 2000, bravely continuing the franchise after that year had passed.


A “Clutch Cargo"-inspired segment had the host conversing with scandal-plagued celebrities. Sometimes the director would cut to the announcing booth, where pony-tailed announcer Joel Godard would relate a tragic anecdote with a wide and unsettlingly frozen smile plastered across his face. And there were frequent visits from Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, a cigar-chomping, wisecracking puppet created and operated by writer Robert Smigel, whose memorable 1997 debut found the character trying to copulate with purebreds at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

O’Brien sees no reason that such comedy can’t be done on “Tonight,” even though the audience at 11:35 p.m. is much larger and, it is often supposed, less venturesome than the one that turns up an hour later. “If something works, you keep it. And if something doesn’t fit anymore, you don’t. I think it’s that simple,” he said.

“I personally think the whole 12:30-11:30 split is [overblown]; people exaggerate the difference. I think television’s changed a great deal. I’m constantly turning on my TV at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and seeing women in shaving cream bikinis gyrating on some MTV show.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘Well, it’s too bad you can’t do Triumph on ‘The Tonight Show,’ ” he continued. “And I’m like, ‘Yes, you can. Triumph has been a guest on Jay Leno’s ‘Tonight Show’ twice.’ Of course you can do it. The show just needs to be funny.”


Already O’Brien has decided to pay homage to his past by asking Richter, who left “Late Night” nearly a decade ago, to rejoin him. O’Brien said he envisions Richter in a role similar to Ed McMahon’s on the Carson show. Except, it seems, with quite a bit more comedy thrown in. Richter, an understated performer who developed a cult following of his own, has already filmed a segment that finds him attending announcers school.

Indeed, much of “Late Night’s” staff, including executive producer Jeff Ross, has moved to California for the new show (the total staff for “Tonight” numbers 120). O’Brien will commute from Brentwood, where last year he bought a $10.5-million, six-bedroom mansion for himself, wife Liza (a former ad agency employee whom he met while filming a “Late Night” remote piece) and their two young children. While his salary was reportedly $8 million per year on “Late Night,” it has likely escalated significantly in the earlier time slot (Leno earned a reported $30 million annually in the gig). It’s quite a change from his early days in Los Angeles, when he banged out a living in small apartments while writing for TV shows.


Coattails extended


O’Brien has been Leno’s heir apparent for so long that his ascension risked seeming anticlimactic. But then, late last year, NBC decided to shake things up.

The network’s decision to give Leno the 10 p.m. weeknight slot was a surprise, O’Brien conceded. O’Brien said he gets along well with Leno and was pleased the network found a way to keep him. But the notion that he would still be following his predecessor -- five nights a week -- took getting used to.

Ultimately, he said, “It doesn’t have anything to do with me. I can decide this is good for me or bad for me, but it’s not my choice. It’s not my decision. I also realized nobody knows what this means. It’s an unprecedented move. To sit around and try and obsess about it and figure out the angles now feels like a waste of time.”

Brad Adgate, senior vice president at New York ad firm Horizon Media (whose clients include NBC), noted that any shift in the personality-driven world of talk TV can be risky. And the Leno maneuver may end up making O’Brien’s job tougher if NBC viewers decide they don’t need more than one nightly talk show. “There’s a chance there’s some sort of [viewer] fatigue there,” Adgate said.


But he added that NBC took a far bigger risk by installing Fallon as O’Brien’s replacement. Or, for that matter, by giving O’Brien his talk-show break. The point is that late-night audiences are still growing -- a rarity in network TV. “It’s really become an extension of prime time in many ways,” Adgate said of the slot.

As for O’Brien, what he has to do now, he said, is just make “The Tonight Show” as good as he can -- which means tuning out the extraneous noise. “There’s a lot of potential pitfalls moving ahead,” he said. “There’s certain things I can’t pretend. I can’t pretend I’m 32 and in a converted radio studio. There’s certain phases that you go through in your life. So I don’t want to try and pretend I’m something I’m not.

“I really want this show to grow. The ‘Late Night’ show, people can think of it as a static thing. But it really wasn’t. It went through these stages. And I went through stages. So what I’d like to do with ‘The Tonight Show’ is, ‘Let’s continue that, let’s keep it going.’ ”

A well-timed pause. “And then, four years from now, start phoning it in,” he said.