By Josh Horowitz
After making an auspicious entry into the late-night talk-show fray 16 years ago, Conan O’Brien took over the most revered show in the history of the medium on Monday night. In an assured and consistently funny premiere episode of “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien,” first guest Will Ferrell (arriving literally on the shoulders of a slew of strong men) and musical guest Pearl Jam kicked off a week that’s set to feature A-list talent galore, including Tom Hanks, Green Day and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Everything old was new again: Conan is working again with one-time sidekick Andy Richter (now the announcer) and buoyed by the sounds of Max Weinberg and the Tonight Show Band (seemingly abandoning their Max Weinberg 7 moniker.) Indeed, to any fan of O’Brien’s body of work on “Late Night,” the show felt quite familiar, if maybe a little amped up.
Of course, the biggest difference in the morphing of “Late Night” into “Tonight” is the new locale in Los Angeles. If the opening show is to be an indicator, it’s clear that California will be ripe with material for the Tonight writers. The show began with a cold open of O’Brien ticking off things on his to-do list before starting his new job. Aghast that he’d forgotten to move to L.A., O’Brien was followed on an odyssey across America, running Forrest Gump-style through Wrigley Field in Chicago, past the St. Louis arch, taking time to make a pit stop in a Victorian doll museum, before arriving at his locked soundstage.
Check out video from the show after the jump!
O’Brien and company debuted on an immaculate new set at Universal Studios that recalled his own set, only perhaps hopped up on steroids. O’Brien conveyed a humbled sense of awe for his new gig throughout the show, one that began with Steve Allen, was elevated to immortal status by Johnny Carson, became sought after by David Letterman and stewarded over by Jay Leno in ratings-dominating fashion for 17 years.
For those who remember O’Brien’s beginnings as a late-night comedian — the renewals by the skin of his teeth, the relentlessly harsh reviews — his emergence as the newest custodian of the “Tonight Show” is the culmination of a remarkable story. O’Brien paid tribute to his predecessor, Jay Leno, with a speech near the top of the show, even encouraging the audience to applaud the man who will once again be a lead-in for Conan when his new talk show begins in the fall.
Ferrell gently ribbed O’Brien throughout his appearance, calling his assumption of the “Tonight Show” throne “a crapshoot at best.” But judging from this premiere, the bet on O’Brien looks to be a good one for NBC.