Conan gets a call-up
WHEN Conan O’Brien took over as host of the Late Night talk show in 1993, viewers were starting to spread across dozens of cable channels tailored to taste.
He leaves Late Night to successor Jimmy Fallon (a slot Rove McManus had hoped to fill) in a few weeks to replace Jay Leno on The Tonight Show and faces an even more splintered universe.
‘‘One of the questions I have to resolve by doing this show is: What is a 21st-century Tonight Show?’’ O’Brien says. ‘‘What is a Tonight Show in 2010, ’11, ’12, in a world where there are DVRs (digital video recorders) and 300 cable channels?’’
Before he can build it in his own image, O’Brien has pored over designs for the new studio NBC is building him on its Universal Studios lot — not part of the adjacent theme park because ‘‘I don’t want someone who’s just been through a log flume and has 65 litres of a sugar drink in them watching me chat’’.
The new home will be not quite double the size of his Studio 6A home at New York’s Rockefeller Centre, which could hold an audience of about 200. Size and scale are of the utmost importance — bigger, but not too big. ‘‘You need intimacy,’’ he says. ‘‘You want to allow for the possibility of a herd of elephants wandering in, but the funniest things that happen on my show a lot of times are small moments that happen in a small space and then expand.
‘‘The reality is you get to a certain size and unless you’re Gallagher and you’re smashing watermelons with a mallet, you’ve lost people beyond the eighth row.’’
As for how the show itself changes, O’Brien expects it will be similar to his growth on Late Night.
‘‘There are things that I did in my 30s and early 40s, like Masturbating Bear, that I’m sure some frat guys will say, ‘You sold out by not doing Masturbating Bear’. But I’m tired of it. I’m 45 years old . . . and I have two kids now.’’
He has, in certain respects, grown up on Late Night.
‘‘I know I’m getting The Tonight Show, but the seminal broad- casting experience of my life is always going to be the Late Night show,’’ he says.
‘‘Because you’re only that young and crazy and hungry and deluded once. It’s Rockefeller Centre, David Letterman’s studio and that crazy story we went through (where) I almost got (axed) five times and shouldn’t even be here. Nothing can match that.’’
O’Brien’s transition to Tonight, however, has not been seamless. Leno has announced he is not only staying at NBC but will have a new show five nights a week, 95 minutes before Tonight.
Many think this weakens O’Brien’s platform. He moved.
‘‘I fully expect the media will speculate over what this means and we’re all going to find out in the next couple of years,’’ he says.
‘‘I’m happy that Jay is staying at NBC . . . I have no interest in another late-night war. The media likes it, but I don’t think Jay likes that and I don’t like that.
‘‘What I decided when I heard about this is to say, ‘Look, I’m happy he’s staying. I don’t know exactly how this is going to play out, but nothing has changed for me’. I’m hosting The Tonight Show. That’s the show I watched with my dad when I was 10.’’
Big shoes to fill:
Conan O’Brien takes over from Jay Leno on The Tonight Show.