O’Brien made his decision without waiting for what will most probably be a search for David Letterman’s replacement around the same time Leno steps down. And Jon Stewart is the most obvious candidate for that seat. By the way, if you want to get on O’Brien’s good side, do not bring up Jon Stewart (who failed at his own late-night show in 1994), as it makes him bristle at the unfairness of Stewart’s comedic hegemony—he won two Emmys last week—for a far less complex, toilsome, and popular show, at 1.4 million viewers per night. Stewart’s contract is up in 2008 (though Viacom could conceivably move him from Comedy Central to CBS whenever the need arose), setting the stage for a potentially sensational grudge match.
Leno may have torn down the Church of Johnny, but there’s still a pulpit. Middle America is comfortable with Leno, who, gray though he’s going, still seems like a big, cheerful kid from the suburbs, a man who knows his place in the firmament. And he does. “For everything about how incredibly important the job is, there’s something else about how incredibly trivial it is, and the truth is somewhere in the middle,” says Leno. “You believe all that you can. I’d believe it all if I could.”
The facts are that O’Brien will inherit the longest-running entertainment program on television, one of the remaining network television profit areas, and what was once and may still be the most important job in comedy (in ’92, 50 million people watched Carson’s final broadcast after 30 years on the air). Whether that role will continue to exist in American culture is up to O’Brien, accidental hero, an unknown writer for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons chosen to replace Letterman by NBC demigod Lorne Michaels. O’Brien’s a TV Dadaist, an envelope-pusher, a weirdo, with jokes that veer from the non sequitur to the borderline pornographic. From a recent monologue: “Actor Johnny Depp says he wants to shake up his onscreen image, so he’s thinking about starring in a hard-core-porn film. The porno is going to be called Charlie Takes It in the Chocolate Factory.”
O’Brien’s four-year waiting period is a bit of a show-business absurdity—but he may need that much time to get the chocolate-factory jokes out of his system and work his way toward a less ridiculous haircut. Whether he’ll ever get there is a serious question in the television world. There’s something oddly unprofessional and ad hoc—an imaginary giant squid, for example—to O’Brien’s show. He’s as much of a nervous Nellie as Jack Paar, but he draws our attention to it, constantly poking fun at himself. It’s part of his charm at 12:35—but will it play at 11:35?
“Mary-Kate Olsen is thinking of dropping out of college. When asked why, she said, ‘Because I have a billion dollars.’ ”
Conan himself says he hasn’t thought much about how he will format his Tonight Show. “The Tonight Show should become a lot more like The Price Is Right,” he says. “It should be more in the game-show area, because if you’re not giving away a boat, no one is taking you seriously. Also, it should be broadcast from a different city every night. Remember ‘Where in the world is Matt Lauer?’ It should have that kind of quality. If you can figure out we’re in Omaha tonight, you get the boat. Also, I want to bring smoking back. These are the kinds of things I’m thinking of.” And here it comes, the special O’Brien dash of self-deprecation, perhaps less the product of insecurity than a cry for attention by the consummate middle child: “This is why NBC will never give it to me.” But you have the job, Conan. “It’s three years—that’s a long time.” Whatever. “Something could happen,” he says hopefully. “I could go crazy.”
Have you seen O’Brien around town? You would remember. At six-four and 177 pounds, he is very, very tall, and very, very thin, his intelligent, earnest face a kind of looming moon scored with knife-thin creases that fill in with heavy show makeup, leaving a muddy ring on the collar of every dress shirt he owns. He is the most naturally gracious fellow you could hope to meet, though his main hobby is biking on his titanium-carbon Serrotta around the park drive at top speed, because that way he can be with the people, but they not with him. Otherwise, he’s bombarded by calls of “Hello, Conan” (he welcomes each with a nickname, like “Hello, Chopper”) followed by the inevitable “You are sooo tall!” He always says the same thing: “Gotta get a bigger TV.” O’Brien says, “It’s not that good a line, but it kills every time. It drives my wife crazy. I’m like, ‘You want a new line for everybody?’ ”