Due to some bugginess with the relaunch of TVWeek.com, I’m reposting this week’s column below:
It’s another sunny day in Southern California, and Conan O’Brien is about to go for a ride.
The soon-to-be host of “The Tonight Show” waits just outside the entrance of his new late-night Thunderdome, Stage One on the Universal Studios backlot. The calendar says Memorial Day, but while most of the world is firing up the grill, Mr. O’Brien is standing quietly by himself, clad in a snazzy blue suit and full makeup. A nondescript black van waits a few feet away, but Mr. O’Brien pauses to greet me.
He’s clearly in “show mode,” as publicist Drew Shane calls it. But it would be very un-Conan of Mr. O’Brien to not at least chat for a few minutes. We’ve known each other since the earliest days of Mr. O’Brien’s tenure as host of “Late Night.” I was a 22-year-old cub reporter fresh out of Boston University; he was a 30-year-old hosting rookie enduring one of the harshest TV debuts in the medium’s history.
We exchange pleasantries. Quickly, oddly, and yet somehow inevitably, our brief conversation turns to … The Hair.
“The humidity is different out here,” Mr. O’Brien says, quickly running his fingers through the orange pompadour that has become his trademark. The Hair is so much a part of Mr. O’Brien’s brand, NBC has taken to installing giant billboards all over Los Angeles dominated by a gigantuan portrait of the distinctive ‘do.
Mr. O’Brien quickly offers a joke about having to import special air from New York to ensure The Hair is restored to its familiar levels of bounciness. I immediately begin thinking about how to work the matter of the mane into my story. My mind races with possible metaphors to be drawn between Mr. O’Brien’s noticeably calmer West Coast coif, and his new gig as host of one of few remaining iconic landmarks left in the increasingly downsized television landscape.
I’m not the only one stretching. The day before my brief chat with Mr. O’Brien, the New York Times Magazine profile of Conan asks, somewhat desperately, “Can He Be Our Johnny?”
And yet, on this picture-perfect L.A. day—is there really any other kind here?—Mr. O’Brien is characteristically unconcerned with the media histrionics playing out around him. Over the last few months, he’s posed for the funny photos (Conan on the beach! Conan jumping in a pool!), strolled around his set with the infobabe from “Access Hollywood,” patiently answered questions from the print reporters who assemble via conference call.
But even as he takes part in the process, even as he visits all the stations of the cross in the late-night passion play, Mr. O’Brien somehow seems—well, not above it, but apart from it. He knows he can’t control the machinery that surrounds this transition, but he chooses instead to focus his energies on what matters most, namely, making “The Tonight Show” his own.
And that’s how it should be, really.
Those of us who have followed, and sometimes reported on, the so-called Late Night Wars of the past 20 years have come to think of Johnny’s kids as Transformers-like warriors who exist only to crush each other with their comedy artillery. We paint their nightly skirmishes in the grandest of terms: Their monologues measure the mood of the nation; their plush sofas exist to rehabilitate celebrities and politicians in need of redemption.
Lost in all this psychodrama, at least much of the time, are the remarkable creative achievements of those who lead the various late-night shows.
There may no longer be one figure as dominant and all-important as Johnny. But in his place, a post-prime time renaissance has sprouted up. The one-named warriors—Dave, Jay, Conan, Craig, Stewart, Colbert—consistently deliver some of the best television on television, as well as some of the most talked-about viral videos on the Internet.
Back on the Universal lot, Mr. O’Brien quickly ends talk about The Hair, and future guests, and the possible sketches listed on the bulletin board in his office. Without prompting from any handlers, he decides it’s time to jump into the van and head out to tape the bit.
I stand for a minute, talking with Mr. Shane about the relentless schedule of rehearsals and meetings facing team “Tonight Show” in the days leading up to the June 1 premiere. Suddenly, the van starts up and begins slowly moving forward. Mr. O’Brien, in the front seat next to the driver, turns and waves goodbye.
It’s time to go for a ride.