Posted Tuesday, June 2, 2009, at 11:38 AM
Punching in as the host of The Tonight Show —rocking out the first song on his new album , as it were— guitar hero Conan O'Brien did Cheap Trick's " Surrender ." Punching out an aggressive mission statement, he blazoned his intent to thrill. The dek of Lynn Hirschberg's Times piece, linked above, restated the question dogging him since he accepted the gig: "Can Conan O'Brien's Brand of Late-Late-Night, Smart-Guy, Outsider Humor Work on 'The Tonight Show'?" He replied—forcefully, gracefully, wonderfully weirdly—by outrunning the dogs. The cold open roared, "Yes!" And also, "If it can't, fug 'em; I'll do it my way." It was kinda like a formal dedication.
In the earlier half-hour, in the canned interviews promoting the new Tonight on the 11 p.m. local news, Conan had looked old and terribly drawn. The lighting and makeup people hadn't done right by him, nor had the California sun, under which an Irishman such as he, skin as white as lace curtains, ought to be using SPF 3,000. But in this epic remote , he was merely as handsomely gaunt as Dean Wareham (his old schoolmate and exact contemporary) and elsewise all youth and health and vitality. The concept was that this diligent Harvard boy , checking off the mundane business of the day—brushing the teeth and all that—comes to an item reading "move to L.A." The camera lavishes a glance out of a 30 Rock office onto the Chrysler Building, and Conan gives an "Oh, God," as if shocked by the dreariness of abandoning the sexiest icon of the world's greatest city. He thus kisses farewell to sentiment in two beats. Then, a young man in a hurry, he says goodbye to all that and bolts for the door.
The rest you must see for yourself. Look at the purpose in Conan's cross-country stride, the fine line of his back, the slim suit a Reservoir Dog would die for, the flow of his Eero Saarinen hair as he cruises. In the opening sequence of the new Late Night , Jimmy Fallon goes running every show, but it feels as if he's anxious and rushing, as if he'll get fired if he's tardy for work one more time. Conan is swift with confidence.
The setup for the pay-off is gorgeous. Even as your heart swells at seeing the sights of all America—or, at least, of those parts of America hosting the network affiliates Conan has been working to woo—it starts sinking with the worry that the trip will conclude with the host sprinting straight onto his new stage. That would be cheesy. That would spoil the whole thing. The tension is palpable, and then you get that forlorn shot of the forgotten keys and a sweet release.
Conan's hot cold open says this is action, this is a national institution, this is physical comedy as sophisticated as Harold Lloyd's or Jacques Tati's, this is absurdity as deft as John Ashbery's or Spike Jonze's. He wants mom and dad rolling with laughter on the couch, and he wants to go the distance.