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Critic's Notebook: Conan O'Brien's changing time

As was first announced five years ago, Conan O'Brien abdicated his position as the host of NBC's "Late Night" Friday night, preparatory to taking up the scepter and mantle of "The Tonight Show." His investiture is scheduled for JunConandancee 1.

Such changes come rarely in network television -- O'Brien's 16-season run is not coincidentally matched by "Late Night" predecessor David Letterman's still-continuing stint on CBS's "Late Show" and by Leno's soon-to-end "Tonight Show" tenure. O'Brien will be only the fifth host of that program, the tree from which most late-night talk shows spring, following Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Leno. "It sounds like the joke at the end of a sentence," he told Matt Lauer on "Today" the morning before his last show. (Self-deprecation is his stock in trade, though he is by definition a success.)

More or less the same things happen in more or less the same order in all late-night network talk shows -- the opening monologue, banter with a second banana, skits, interview, possibly a wacky interruption before a second interview, musical guest. And yet they are alike only as nations are alike; each has developed its own culture, its own language, its own coterie of allegiance-pledging fans.

It's no accident that Letterman, an iconoclast who became an icon while still managing to seem an iconoclast, forged his outsider style at 12:30, a slot where he spent nearly a dozen years before moving to 11:30, the major leagues, the Big Show. The later the hour, the less accommodating one needs to be to mainstream tastes -- the audience is younger and stranger and smaller. They are the sort of people who do not need to get up in the morning, or can't get to sleep in the first place, or just don't want to. The guest stars are not as reliably stellar after 12:30, so the host and his players may wave their arms a little harder to compensate.

O'Brien was, to be sure, more of an outsider than Letterman, whom he followed onto "Late Night," where Letterman had reigned for a dozen years. Possibly 30 people watching knew who he was then (a writer for "Saturday Night Live" and "The Simpsons"), and NBC was unsure enough about the choice that for a while they renewed the show only 13 weeks at a time. But he learned on the job and somehow managed to survive until success. "I didn't know what you couldn't do on television," he told Lauer, and he did those very things. Or as he recently told sometime "Late Night" player James Lipton on Lipton's "Inside the Actors Studio," "All the best things about our show are things that don't really need to exist."

Six-foot-four and made mostly of arms and legs, his skin of an alien translucence, his hair a cantilevered pompadour, O'Brien has, even at 45, a kind of unformed lanky boyishness only intensified by a repertoire of funny faces and voices -- it is as if he were inhabited by a crew of elves and imps and old B-movie characters. He is a deeply committed goofball who does not mind getting his hands dirty, or any other part of him, if that will get a laugh. Where Letterman floats above his fray, a cackling Buddha who at his silliest remains majestical, O'Brien hurls himself into the midst of it. He runs and jumps, dances and twitches, rides over the heads of this audience on a zipline. He gets excited in a way no other talk-show host has ever dared, bothered or wanted to.

At the same time, the humor on his show can be conceptual to the point of art. "Late Night" has been presented in animated clay, by skeletons, to an audience made up exclusively of grade school children. The very idea of a cast of crazy characters has been taken to a point that would have the Dadaists of the Cafe Zurich nodding in approval: Sears Tower Wearing Sears Clothing, or Chess Piece with a Mullet Riding a Rascal Scooter while Listening to a Ringtone of Little Red Corvette, which could almost be the title of a Max Ernst collage. The show was oddly playful about the space between people, communication breakdowns, confused sexual signals. It was a place of disturbed animals (vomiting Kermit, a suicidal horse, a masturbating bear) and weirdly behaved machines (Pimpbot 5000, Robot on a Toilet).

O'Brien spent the last two weeks of "Late Night" looking back at these bits, running a lot of old clips between the guests that approached genius often enough. The final show -- of 2,725, "42 of them quite good" -- featured surprise guests Andy Richter, his erstwhile sidekick ("I told you you'd never last without me"), and Will Ferrell (as George Bush, and George Bush as a leprechaun stripper). A tearful Conan released regular Abe Vigoda "back into the wild" ("You should be someplace where you can run and be happy"), and as he had every night that week, he took an ax to the set and distributed bits to the audience.

How that merrily destructive energy will play at 11:30 is the repeatedly asked question. Will O'Brien change the nature of the time slot or will the time-change change him? He wants to do "a great 11:30 show for this network," he told Lauer, which suggests a degree of compromise. But he also told his final cheering "Late Night" audience,"We're going on to the next gig, and sometimes I read that it's time for Conan to grow up because he's going to 11:30. And let me assure you that's just not going to happen. This is who I am for better or worse."

The times change on their own, of course, which is why the thought of Conan O'Brien as the host of "The Tonight Show," as venerable an institution as the medium can claim, is no longer completely strange. (It is still a little strange.) Leno's recently devised move to a 10 p.m. nightly series suggests that NBC isn't actually altering its lineup so much as redefining when late night begins, installing Leno as a kind of early-bird special for aging boomers and bringing in new "Late Night" host Jimmy Fallon, 34, for the kids. (Said Fallon on a recent NBC.com video blog, "We're going to get video game designers and stuff like that on the show.") These moves are an investment in a future that no one involved actually understands.

But it's safe to say that there will be no bears masturbating at 11:30 on NBC. At least not this year.

--Robert Lloyd

Photo: Conan O'Brien, left, and final-week guest Stephen Colbert, do the String Dance. Photo credit: NBC Universal.

 
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