Conan O'Brien wants viewers to think of his “Tonight Show” debut Monday as the introductory course to a new late-night era.
“I'm not going to cure cancer on the first show, and I'm not going to jump Snake River Canyon. I'm not going to levitate. Sometimes people forget this is the first show of what I hope will be many, many, many shows,” O'Brien said.
Besides, he said, viewers accustomed to Jay Leno as host for 17 years, and those who watched Johnny Carson holding court for 30 years before that, need time to warm up to a new guy.
That would be the lanky fellow, formerly of New York, who sports a red pompadour and intriguingly off-kilter comic sensibility.
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“My hope is that people will watch the first night and say, `Hey, there was some fun stuff in there and he cleans up nice. I might try him tomorrow night,'” O'Brien said.
He's far from unprepared. There was a five-year waiting period to claim ownership of “Tonight” after NBC announced the plum job would go to O'Brien, and he's ready for his transition from the 12:30 a.m. “Late Night” to the 11:30 p.m. “Tonight.”
He played a different “Tonight” role Friday, as Leno's last guest. O'Brien told the outgoing host he was leaving big shoes to fill.
“You were the only choice. You were the perfect choice,” Leno said in return.
A test run was encouraging, O'Brien said Thursday.
“We got an audience in and did a show start to finish, and it felt really good,” he said. “It was like we built a brand-new ocean liner and last night took it out on the bay, and it didn't blow up. So that's a good sign.”
“We were done and I thought, `We can air that.' It felt pretty good.”