“The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien”
Monday through Friday at 11:35 p.m.
NBC

Courtesy of NBC

4 out of 5 stars

When NBC announced that Conan O’Brien would be taking over “The Tonight Show” back in 2004, most of the buzz surrounding the move involved whether or not he could actually pull it off.

Since being chosen from relative obscurity to host “Late Night” in 1993, O’Brien has carved out a comfortable niche with his absurdist humor. But with characters like Pimpbot 5000 and the Masturbating Bear, his appeal to an audience accustomed to Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” was (and still is) up in the air. Now that O’Brien has officially taken the reins of “The Tonight Show,” it’s clear that he couldn’t care less about his new audience’s expectations.

Right out of the gate, “The Tonight Show” can’t help but feel like “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” on a new set — but that’s hardly a bad thing. O’Brien has been on the air for more than a decade, and so far “The Tonight Show” has relied heavily on the same fine-tuned combination of monologues, traditional interviews and musical guests, along with sketch material and pretaped segments.

These segments, which showed O’Brien in a variety of different situations outside of the studio, were always great on “Late Night” — one of the most memorable had Conan playing in an old-time baseball league — and on “The Tonight Show,” they’re just as strong. These segments work especially well thanks to O’Brien’s consummate showmanship and ability to riff on whatever ridiculous scenarios he faces.

So far, “The Tonight Show” has gotten a lot of mileage from the fact that O’Brien has switched coasts. In the first episode, he was shown sitting in the rafters during a Los Angeles Lakers game and, later, guiding a tram tour in Universal Studios. In addition to cracking a variety of jokes at the tour’s expense, O’Brien has the tram driven through downtown LA and buys the whole tour group things from a 99-cent store. As good as the pretaped segments were during “Late Night,” the show’s new locale helps keep them fresh.

Being a late-night talk show, “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” adheres to the genre’s tropes. At this point, the topical monologue and celebrity interviews are essentially relics of a bygone era. But O’Brien’s irreverent approach toward these usual talk show conventions carries over to “The Tonight Show.”

The first two episodes featured Tom Hanks (“Angels & Demons”) being struck by a giant meteor and Will Ferrell (“Land of the Lost”) entering the set perched on a throne. While it’s hard to tell whether or not it’s just the show pulling out all the stops during its first week, having “The Tonight Show” open to such surrealist humor is a nice change from Leno’s straightforward jokes.

One minor pitfall of the show is Andy Richter (“Andy Barker, P.I.”), O’Brien’s sidekick on “Late Night” until 2000. He now works as the announcer for the “Tonight Show,” but the show doesn’t seem to know what to do with him just yet. The rapport between Richter and O’Brien is familiar and regularly funny, but after eight years apart, there’s not yet a sense that the two are entirely comfortable working together again.

Still, that hiccup is more of a growing pain rather than inexperience, and as O’Brien’s time on “Late Night” showed, he’s more than capable of overcoming such shortcomings. Since O’Brien came into the public eye, he’s grown into a more than capable host.

And after taking on “The Tonight Show” with such a strong start, it’s safe to say that O’Brien and “The Tonight Show” will definitely be around for a while.

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