Late Night: At Long Last, Here's Conan

OK, THE CACKLE IS A problem. Last week NBC unveiled its new "Late Night" show and finally launched the career of TV's pre-eminent nobody, Conan O'Brien. Even given the talkshow population explosion, the ascendance of the former "Simpsons" writer has been truly surprising. In his first monologue, O'Brien remembered a cruel schoolyard taunt from his youth: "The day you get your own talk show is the day there'll be peace in the Middle East."

Predictably, O'Brien's inspiration quotient falls somewhere between David Letterman's and that of the time bomb named Chevy Chase. He has a high, nervous whinny and, when at a loss for a question, tends to look at guests blankly and say, "What's going on?" Still, he manages to charm. During his first few shows, in fact, O'Brien came off so modest and grateful--so visibly glad to be here--hat he became a black hole of empathy. His best moments were playful and absurd: a leg-wrestling match between John Goodman and George Wendt, phony satellite interviews with Bill Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, a videotape of his walk to work during which strangers shouted that he'd better be as good as Letterman.

The first show pulled down a respectable 2.7 rating. (That same evening Leno scored a 5.2.) Reviews of the show's debut ranged from charitable to hostile: The Washington Post called it "an hour of aimless dawdle masquerading as a TV program." But before his first show even aired, O'Brien beat his detractors to the punch by panning himself in a New York Times op-ed piece titled O'BRIEN FLOPS! The host's good humor may yet triumph. For now, he should pray war doesn't break out in the Middle East.

Late Night: At Long Last, Here's Conan | News