Conan O'Brien's 'Tonight Show' debut: Will Ferrell and Choco Tacos

Conanobrien_tonight_1stshow_290 Like a lot of people, I wasn't initially a fan of Conan O'Brien when he took over "Late Night" in 1993. And like a lot of people, I grew to like him quite a bit over the years.

So, cards on the table: I'm a Conan fan. And as he took over "The Tonight Show" Monday night, he seemed every bit as confident as he was shaky in his early days at "Late Night." O'Brien's first show didn't break any comedy ground, but it was a pretty nice way to ease into the new gig.

The opening: Conan is brushing his teeth, listening to a radio announcer talk about his impending "Tonight" debut and going through his checklist -- build set, write jokes, get dressed, brush teeth, move to L.A. Uh-oh -- he's still in New York. In a "Run, Conan, run!" bit scored to Cheap Trick's "Surrender," we see O'Brien passing various landmarks -- Chicago's Wrigley Field, the St. Louis arch, the Rockies -- and after a stop at a Victorian doll museum, he arrives at Universal Studios.

Here's video of the opening (more clips are on Hulu):


The theme song: Carries over "Late Night," with a little more brass and a somehwat fuller sound. It's a good song, though, and fits just fine with the new digs. The band, by the way, has undergone a name change, from The Max Weinberg 7 to Max Weinberg and the Tonight Show Band.

The set: Looks really good on TV. The space has a sort of old Hollywood feel to it, with a mural across the top of the set and a series of white panels above a semi-circular curtain from which O'Brien emerges to open the show. A cool, Art Deco-y screen forms the backdrop behind him during the monologue. The desk and couch are screen left of the curtain, and the band is to the right. Announcer/sidekick Andy Richter has a podium just in front of the audience, and behind the deck is a nice montage of some landmark L.A. buildings and the hills.

Really, I can't praise the designers enough for their work. It looks like a talk-show set, sure, but it's a really nice talk-show set.

The monologue: After a long ovation and a brief string dance (yay!), O'Brien goes immediately to self-deprecation: "I think I've timed this moment perfectly. Think about it: I'm on a last-place network, I moved to a state that's bankrupt, and tonight's show is sponsored by General Motors."

The monologue was relatively light on stand-up style jokes -- save for a reliable joke about the woeful L.A. Clippers -- but had a couple good visual gags like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's greeting to the show (cut to tape of Clinton saying "Hello," and that's it) and O'Brien relishing hanging out with his celeb buddies at a Laker game (from the very top row of Staples Center). The one topical bit was about Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, and thanks to a fake voiceover from Vice President Joe Biden, led to a running use of the phrase "Choco Taco" throughout the night.

It clocked in around six or seven minutes, a good bit shorter than predecessor Jay Leno's joke-driven routines.

The comedy: Two taped pieces about O'Brien adjusting to life in L.A. dominated the pre-guest portion of the show. A piece where Conan plays tour guide at Universal Studios, mocking Norman Bates at the "Psycho" set, having the tram driver go around in circles and eventually leading it onto the streets and to a 99-Cent Store, worked pretty well.

The second piece, in which Conan and his 1992 Taurus hit the streets and turn on the ladies, could have been shorter (if only to subject the audience to a smaller dose of Billy Ocean). Sending Conan out of the studio is usually a good bet, and he and his writers can wring more comedy out of the cross-country move and being on a working studio lot. But two longish sketches on top of one another Monday night was a bit much. 

Richter also wasn't involved much, save for a few comments here and there and the occasional cut to him reacting to someone else. It doesn't look like he'll be on the couch much, but it'd be nice to see him take a bigger role in other pieces as the show goes forward.

The guests: Will Ferrell is a big star with a new movie (distributed by Universal, no less) opening this week, and also a long-time Conan regular, so he's a natural as the first guest. He's also, however, not really the guy to have on if you want to demonstrate your skills as an interviewer. Ferrell tends to dominate the situation he's in, as evidenced here by his entrance on a sedan chair borne by four dudes in loincloths.

O'Brien had the sense to stay out of his guest's way, though, and played the right note of bewilderment when Ferrell started to sing "Never Can Say Goodbye" at the end of his last segment. "Don't get me wrong -- I'm pulling for you," Ferrell said. "But this whole thing is a crapshoot at best." It's a good line -- and the ratings and performance scrutiny O'Brien will be under for the next few months is going to be huge -- but I don't think Conan will be back working on 13-week contracts anytime soon.

Pearl Jam had the honor of being the first musical guest, playing a song from their new album "Backspacer." The band was tight, and the sound came across pretty clear and sharp, which is no small feat (see most of the musical guests on "Saturday Night Live" this season).

The verdict: Conan's first "Tonight Show" had a mission to introduce the new host to folks who didn't stay up past 12:30 to watch him before, and the tram sketch, the video bits in the monologue and his rapport with Ferrell did a pretty good job of it. It was a pretty safe outing (and he was smart to offer up his praise to Leno), but it probably won't be (or at least shouldn't be) his best work in his new home.

But it was also a pretty solid start. Questions about whether O'Brien is a worthy heir to "The Tonight Show" legacy will undoubtedly continue, but at least based on his debut, things look to be in good hands.

What did you think of Conan's "Tonight Show" debut?