Conan O'Brien, the new host of The Tonight Show, is funny, witty, and possesses the sort of affable geekiness that makes him seem approachable. In its first weeks, his new version of Tonight--airing live-to-tape from a gorgeous purpose-built neo-art deco studio on Los Angeles's Universal lot--has contained more than its share of comic gems. And even though the show runs on fourth-place NBC, it has turned in decent ratings numbers for advertisers. Financially and artistically, in short, the show will probably work out well. But with O'Brien at the helm, The Tonight Show appears ready to end its run as a touchstone of American popular culture and take its place as--well, just another entertainment program.
The Tonight Show, which has produced more episodes than any entertainment program in American television history, defined an entire genre in the way few programs ever have. Although only a few million people watch it, the show gets lots of attention in high places: In a well-done skit taped with news reader Brian Williams, Barack Obama welcomed O'Brien to the show while promising not to bail out the show if it bombs. (The bit ends with Obama's slightly creepy grin.)
Obama had good political cause to do this because, after all, just about every American has seen the show at some point, and few can bring themselves to hate it. It's safe. The most watched program in its time slot for all but two of its years on the air, its four prior hosts--Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, and Jay Leno--were all well-known comics specializing in pointed, mostly nonpolitical, humor. While Steve Allen did become politically engaged later in life--his quirky views led him to attack belief in God, "dirty" television, almost all conservatives, and most popular culture created after 1955--the show itself rarely managed to permanently offend anyone.
O'Brien is cut from different cloth. While all previous hosts had some degree of personal celebrity outside the late-night talk show business, O'Brien's time in the public eye has all been as a talk show host. He has never done a standup comedy tour, played a professional dramatic role beyond a cameo, or appeared in a commercially released movie. He found himself vaulted from a variety of respected (but hardly fame-creating) writing gigs on Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, and a variety of sketch comedy troupes when, in 1993, Lorne Michaels picked him as David Letterman's replacement on NBC's Late Night. His run attracted plenty of derision in its first year, and NBC kept him on a week-to-week contract. But he eventually gained an audience made up of the young people advertisers pay extra to reach.
Even after 16 years on the air, O'Brien hasn't emerged as a great stand-up comic. His nervousness while telling jokes, although endearing at times, makes him seem amateurish. He really excels where he started: in sketch comedy that's heavy on writing, visual humor, and zaniness, but not so reliant on comic timing. A few inspired bits--a meteor coming out of nowhere to hit guest Tom Hanks and a long sequence with O'Brien hijacking a tram tour of the Universal lot--required plenty of writing and acting talent but little of the natural comic timing that Leno and Carson brought to the show.
No Tonight host has ever been great at interviews and O'Brien is no exception. O'Brien is much more comfortable doing sketch comedy with guests than talking with them. And sketches are where O'Brien works best: Early in his career, he wrote Saturday Night Live's infamous "Nude Beach" sketch where the word "penis" was repeated over 40 times in five minutes. But he does more than just anatomical jokes. As chief writer for The Simpsons he wrote the smart, literate, funny episode--"Marge vs. the Monorail"--that's arguably the show's best episode ever. The best bits of comedy on Late Night involved his in-jokey, postmodern looks at life "In the Year 2000," which continued well beyond the actual year 2000, and on up to a so-so retread ("In the Year 3000") during his first week on Tonight.
All of this works on its own terms, but like nearly all sketch comedy, the confines of a short sketch can get old, tired, even offensive. Despite a few brilliant sight gags, a pre-filmed sketch built around a visit to Universal's sound stage fell flat and ran on too long, as did a bit about Julia Louis-Dreyfus stealing an Oscar from the cafeteria. No matter how good the writing--and O'Brien's can be very good--sketch comedy just isn't going to have the appeal of the standup routines that have dominated The Tonight Show. A good standup comedian can always recover from a bad joke; a bad sketch just gets irritating.
In some respects, the Conan O'Brien version shows promise. His show is wonderful-looking, funny, fun, and well-written. His humor, on balance, is more sophisticated than Carson's or Leno's. But on a fourth-place network, a sketch comedy-based late-night show probably won't keep its place as a cultural touchstone. The Tonight Show under Conan O'Brien is good and will probably succeed. But it's just another TV show.
Eli Lehrer is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.