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About (Late) Last Night: In Round One, Conan's monologue KOs Leno's

November 9, 2010 |  6:36 am

"Conan" premiered Monday night on TBS, sating hordes of fans (largely residing online as Team Coco) who had only grown more hungry for O'Brien's distinct brand of self-deprecation in the months since his ousting from NBC's "The Tonight Show." Much has happened since he was last on the air, so O'Brien had a lot to work with. The question was how to address it all in one episode and, moreover, one monologue.

The answer for O'Brien was to stick with what's been working: jokes about getting fired. Leno, on "The Tonight Show," acted like nothing had changed.

"Have you heard about this movie '127 Hours'?" Leno asked his audience, appropriately unfazed. He followed with a punch-line about "Eat, Pray, Love," a film released in August. So it goes for the play-it-safe "Tonight Show." That said, Leno's life is relatively drama-free.

Conan is still working out some issues, or at least milking his situation. On a fresh set, but with his usual hair-led bravado, O'Brien got right to it: "Yes, I know what you guys are thinking, 'Hey, it’s the guy from Twitter,'" he said. Have you heard he was out of a job recently?

"People ask me why I named the show 'Conan,'" he continued. "I did it so I’d be harder to replace."

Leno, meanwhile, was entirely topical, riffing on President Obama's trip to India ("Go where the jobs are!") and Keith Olbermann ("If only he'd done like Eliot Spitzer..."). A drunken George W. Bush anecdote set up a joke about John McCain and Sarah Palin, and if you closed your eyes, it could've been any time in the last two years. Airport security, Charlie Sheen, and so on.

Conan followed with four more jokes about NBC and TBS. "The truth is, I’ve dreamed of being a talk show host on basic cable ever since I was 46," he said. Finally -- hopefully spent for good on jokes about his late-night breakup -- O'Brien turned to current events.

"A lot’s happened in the news since I went off the air --- and I was hoping I could cover it all in one joke," he said. "But then I realized that’s like trying to keep an Icelandic volcano from wearing Lady Gaga’s meat dress while a trapped Chilean miner cleans up the BP oil spill." He paused. "Brett Favre’s penis."

But for all the repetition, the positive energy on "Conan" was undeniable. He managed to kick the room's elephant in the shins repeatedly, while Leno dawdled like it was any other night. Tuesday night it is, and Conan starts back at Square One.

-- Joe Coscarelli

See Leno's Monday night monologue after the jump.