Don't worry about Conan O'Brien—he's going to be great as the Tonight Show host.

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Feb. 19 2009 6:54 PM

Don't Worry About Conan

He's going to be great as the Tonight Show host.

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Conan has that skill, too. A commonly overlooked fact of late-night programming is that every host—Conan very much included—fills airtime quite liberally with rim-shot humor about celebrities and stereotypes. What distinguishes the hosts is delivery, of the jokes themselves but also of the idle banter between them. Throughout his show, Conan maintains a running, good-natured self-critique which sometimes has the effect of making the audience laugh more when the jokes don't land. His self-effacement isn't quite the same as Leno's unflagging enthusiasm, but it has a similar rapport-building effect.

It's also a mistake to assume that Conan's success has been built solely on a foundation of sophomoric non sequiturs. Granted, one weapon in his arsenal is the "machine-gun-wielding goose" joke. I refer, of course, to Conan's occasional tendency to end sentences with "Isn't that right, machine-gun wielding goose?"—whereupon a cutaway reveals an actual live goose sitting next to him in the studio with a machine gun hung from its neck. Here, the humor is created by the gap between the bizarre circumstances and the exaggerated calmness with which the surrounding observers deal with them.

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Conan's a master of this trick, but it's not his only one. When he does deliver the rim-shot material, he puts his own spin on it. Take the recent example of A-Rod—a chestnut of a late-night target if there ever was one. Here's a Jay Leno A-Rod joke: "The economy is so bad, New York Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez had to switch from steroids to Flintstone vitamins." Now consider Conan's bit, in which an apology-mad star admits to using steroids, but also to killing Tupac, and sleeping with Madonna, whom he refers to as an "old, leathery, fake-Jewish velociraptor." References to Jurassic Park and one of the most popular musicians of the last two decades—he isn't exactly going over the head of that mass audience here. But unlike Leno's borsht-stained line, Conan's joke has an element of inventiveness, of surprise. It's this aspect of his approach, rather than some unbending devotion to absurdity, that Conan's fans like about him.

As Conan has wrapped up his run in New York City, he's been kicking off each show by running "best-of" segments. Four of the bits replayed last week were "remote" pieces filmed outside the studio. On Monday, it was his 2004 attempt to sell his car, a green 1992 Ford Taurus sedan; on Tuesday it was his 2005 trip to a Napa Valley winery; on Wednesday it was the 2001 hayride he enjoyed with Mr. T.; on Thursday, a 1996 trip to Houston that he took to try to find out who was watching his show, which the local affiliate at the time aired at 2:40 a.m. What all those bits have in common, aside from the fact that they're incredibly funny and that they don't involve bizarre characters or obscure references, is they show Conan engaging with strangers—some of whom have no idea who he is. I suspect that the choice of these particular segments may be a pointed move on his part, a response to his critics. Relax, everyone! Conan's always been great at finding people who've never heard of him and making them laugh. If that doesn't bode well for his tenure at The Tonight Show, I don't know what does.

Ben Mathis-Lilley is editor of the Slatest.