Conan's "Tonight Show" Reportcard -- How'd He Do?!

With all the chatter and speculation and general hullabaloo surrounding Conan O'Brien's debut on NBC's , it was pretty easy to lose sight of an important detail: this ain't Conan's first rodeo. As you may remember, he spent 13-plus years hosting, the show that Jimmy Fallon now spends each night stabbing to death. So Conan's debut wasn't as much about whether or not he could do a late-night variety show, it's whether or not he can do the same show that he'd been doing before, just in a cushier time slot. It'll be months, perhaps, before we're out of the curiosity phase, and ratings can quantify whether Conan can hold his own against David Letterman. But for now, the only way to judge Conan is against himself, and by those standards, he's off to a terrific start.

Most of the trepidation from Conan's fans was based on the fact that with the earlier timeslot, it was clear that such staples as the Masturbating Bear probably would get cut. And for now, it seems they did. The more absurd bits that Conan built his name on were absent from the debut. But the core of the Conan comic essence isn't those more outré gags, it's his relentless self-deprecation. Conan tears himself to shreds in such a deft manner, that it's easy to forget that self-deprecation is actually a super-annoying personality trait. That Conan can pull it off with the severity that he does is the mark of how charming he actually is.

The show's opening bit showed him preparing for his new show, and only forgetting one vital part – moving to LA. After failing to catch a cab, he runs from NYC all the way to his new studio, past landmarks in between. When he runs past a Victorian doll museum, he doubles back to take a look inside. "Is that cornsilk?" he asks the curator, while petting a doll's hair. It was the doll museum bit that signals to Conan aficionados such as myself that the Conan of old wasn't going anywhere. Following this intro, there was a title sequence with the same opening theme as he had on (played by a band led by the ol' pro, Max Weinberg.) The show's announcer is Conan's old sidekick, Andy Richter, who impressively transformed his weaselly speaking voice into a convincing and feral announcer growl. The monologue felt familiar, and when the show's only sit-down guest Will Ferrell joined, rather than do a traditional interview, Conan let Ferrell do bits. True to form, they were all about how Conan would likely fail in his new timeslot.

But unlike most jokes, the ones about how Conan would tank as host weren't rooted in truth. And while it seemed at first that Jay Leno's move to primetime was terrible for Conan, it's starting to look just the opposite. Conan doesn't have to forfeit his comedic style or his younger-skewing audience. When Jay's new show joins the line-up, the Sea-Bond set will be able to watch their guy that much earlier, and then after the local news, they can go to bed. (No one's going to crash before finding out which common household spice could be killing them, after all.) Meanwhile, those of us that like our comedy a little edgier can enjoy Conan a bit earlier too. There's no telling how he'll perform against Dave, but Conan's ratings will definitely go up by one now that I can watch him in the early slot. I can still stay up and laugh like a baked college kid, then get up and go to work like a sensible adult. Everybody wins.