The last time Conan O’Brien debuted as host of late night show, the reviews were brutal. Sixteen years later, critics seem a bit more impressed.
While not glowing, the early notices for O’Brien’s inaugural edition of "The Tonight Show" were relatively upbeat.
"If you like what he does — and I do — odds are you’ll be happy for the chance to see him do it an hour earlier," wrote Robert Bianco, TV critic for USA Today.
Time’s James Poniewozik called O’Brien "polished, off-the-cuff funny, dapper, poised—but not, substantively, all that different from the Conan of ‘Late Night’." He said O’Brien’s first monologue was "sharp but not gut-busting. But, more important, it was competent."
The Los Angeles Times’ Mary McNamara praised O’Brien’s running across America opening as "a funny, ambitious and surprisingly majestic sketch but, more important, it’s certainly something Jay Leno would never, ever do.
"O’Brien is not as interested in filling Jay’s shoes as in buying a much newer pair," she added.
The Hollywood Reporter didn’t take much of a strong stand one way or another.
"Bottom line: It’s a work in progress as O’Brien tries to fill big shoes while making ‘Tonight’ his own," the paper’s website wrote. Critic Randee Dawn said O’Brien is "a little weird" but that there was "no white flag of surrender in sight."
The harshest early review of O’Brien’s first show came from the Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik, who seemed bothered by just about everything the new host did. In particular, the critic seemed dumbfounded that O’Brien devoted so much time to pre-taped bits rather than a lengthy monologue.
"My guess as to why he went with canned videos rather than a monologue is because the pre-produced tape is far safer," Zurawik complained. "But a host who launches his new career by opting for the safe, is not someone I’m going to praise."
Zurawik also took a swipe at O’Brien for allegedly not mentioning GM’s decision to declare bankruptcy. "You might think on the night that the company that defined corporate America declared bankruptcy, the host of ‘The Tonight Show’ could manage one GM joke no matter how short his monologue, but not O’Brien," he wrote.
According to the Associated Press, however, O’Brien’s very first quip made reference to GM going belly up.
"I think I’ve timed this move perfectly," O’Brien said in his opening monologue. "I’m on a last-place network, I moved to a state that’s bankrupt and ‘The Tonight Show’ is sponsored by General Motors."
Not surprisingly, NBC’s in-house promo team offered the best review of O’Brien’s Night One.
"It’s the best ‘Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien’ yet!" the network raved in a pre-show promo, tongue firmly in cheek.
UPDATE: More reviews…
The Chicago Tribune’s Mo Ryan: A "thumbs up from the Midwest."
Daniel Fienberg, HitFix.com: "I laughed more at Conan’s Monday (June 1) "Tonight Show" premiere than I’ve laughed at Leno in years."
MORNING UPDATE: Still more reviews…
Brian Lowry of Variety, whose pre-debut column worried that O’Brien was too smart for America, still isn’t impressed.
And Newsday writer Verne Gay is apparently drinking from the crazy well. (Sorry, Verne, we do call it LA. Like, every day).
Caryn James, exiled to The Daily Beast, takes a few hundred grafs to get to her point: Hey, Conan, why can’t you be more like superawesome Jon Stewart? Why must you insist on just telling "jokes"?