Conan O’Brien is really, really obsessed with Los Angeles. Or that’s what you’d think after watching his first episode of The Tonight Show. It’s doubtful that most viewers care, or even know, whether a particular talk show is taped on one coast or another, but O’Brien never let us forget it. The opening sketch had him running across the country to get from New York to L.A.; one of his first jokes was about how he’s moved to “a state that’s bankrupt”; when the audience laughed at an L.A. Clippers joke, he commented that he’d learned how to get laughs “in this town.” Even his guest, Will Ferrell, engaged him in a conversation about things to do now that he’s relocated.
The point of all this L.A.-based humour is to portray O’Brien as a fish out of water, an ordinary guy getting used to a new city. The fact that he already lived in L.A. when he wrote for The Simpsons is inconvenient, and therefore never mentioned.
Continuing with the outsider theme, O’Brien presents himself as an upstart turned loose on a respectable showbiz franchise—and a lot of his bits last night were about him looking uncomfortable in stolid, old-fashioned Hollywood, or making mischief by fooling around with show-business institutions (including vandalizing the sacred Hollywood sign). He’s an overgrown kid who’s been given The Tonight Show to play with.
Unlike Jay Leno, who was a confident showbiz insider and a natural performer, O’Brien’s schtick has always been based on the fact that he’s not really a performer, and doesn’t seem comfortable with the conventions of show business. Last night, he laughed sheepishly at his own jokes, good and bad, and he did his trademark move of clasping his hands and bowing, as if debasing himself in front of everyone else. He allowed Ferrell to put him down frequently (though the best line of the night was Ferrell announcing that Liza Minnelli, who will likely beat him out for a Tony, “is a Communist.”)
For some viewers, it may be a jarring change from Leno. While O’Brien is known as the edgier of the two comics, his edginess comes from doing almost childish, infantile humour: he loves silly jokes, like dubbing stupid lines over a clip of Joe Biden, or hauling out old pop-culture icons like Fabio for cameos. Leno’s humour was aimed more at people who wanted to think of themselves as too grown-up for that kind of thing; while Leno’s jokes were not actually smart, they were meant to make the viewer feel smart. Leno fans could listen to his topical political jokes and feel, because they got the jokes, that they were well-informed people; then they’d watch the “Jaywalking” segments and feel smarter than the idiots who couldn’t answer Leno’s questions. That’s the biggest change between Leno and O’Brien: Leno did dumbed-down smart humour for older viewers, while O’Brien does smart stupid humour for younger hipsters. Whether the Tonight Show audience will accept these extra layers of irony is still an open question.
It seems likely that O’Brien will be on The Tonight Show for a while: last night’s ratings were good, NBC likes him, and he knows how to steer a show in the right direction (remember, his first talk show started disastrously). But it’s possible that he may never become an institution like Carson or even Leno, just because he doesn’t have—or want to have—their kind of authority. Those guys were showbiz kings who loved the phony glamour of Hollywood; O’Brien wanted us to know, last night, that he’s not an authority figure, but someone like us who happens to have stumbled into an important job. Of course he’s rich, powerful and loves his job, just like Leno. The difference is that O’Brien is hoping we won’t figure that out.