Conan takes a giant step into late-night spotlight NBC introduces its best hope for life after Dave

May 04, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

NEW YORK — It was Conan and the barbarians here last night.

When Conan O'Brien, the unknown picked to replace David Letterman as NBC's late-night talk show host, walked into the Rainbow Room atop the Rockefeller Center for a news conference, a pack of about 30 photographers rushed forward, surrounded him and spent the next five minutes jostling, shooting and shouting "Conan, Conan, look this way. Conan, Conan, smile."

Among them was renowned photographer Annie Leibowitz. That's the kind of attention the 30-year-old O'Brien has been getting since NBC announced last week that he would take over the late-night spot in August when Letterman leaves for CBS.

"I'm going from unknown to relative unknown overnight," O'Brien said amid all the clicking and whirring. "I want to thank the press for that."

While the news media may be keenly interested in O'Brien, early analyses have not been great. USA Today called O'Brien "Conan Who." And Entertainment Weekly said, "Here's a confidence builder: He [O'Brien] was chosen by the same empty suits who let Letterman get away."

O'Brien was noticeably nervous and tried too hard to be funny once the news conference started. But some of his comments were clever and intriguing; it might be worth giving him a chance to perform before writing him off as the latest knuckleheaded move by NBC.

"My feeling is that I'm not replacing David Letterman," O'Brien said in response to repeated questions about whether he would be borrowing such Letterman staples as "Stupid Pet Tricks."

"David Letterman is still going to be around, so I'm not going to do mycheesy version of the David Letterman show. . . . I'm not going to try and copy it or knock it off.

"What I'd like to do is try and do a talk show. When you're doing a show five nights a week, you can't generate all original material. . . . So, I don't want people to think this is going to be this all-new breakthrough thing where I'm going to be underwater and painted blue and the guests are going to be asking me questions or something. It's not going to be that. What it is going to be in some ways is a conventional talk show.

"But what I'd like to do in that talk show format is try some new things, experiment. My feeling about all of this is that it's a little bit of a responsibility. I'm only 30 years old, and not many people of my generation get to do this kind of thing. I'm being given an opportunity. If I go out and do exactly the same thing that everybody else is doing and don't take any chances, I think I'm blowing an opportunity. . . . But I'm definitely not going to try and replace Letterman.

O'Brien said that Letterman had invited to him to appear on his show, and that he would so so tonight.

"David Letterman called me a couple of days ago," O'Brien said, "and he could not have been classier or nicer. . . . I was really thrilled, and he was just really great. He said he thought they made a smart choice and said, 'If I can give you any advice, just ask.' I could not have asked for a nicer phone call. And that's one

of the nicest things that's happened to me since this announcement."

Some of O'Brien's best moments came in response to a question about how he felt about being second choice, a reference to reports that NBC first offered the job to Garry Shandling. Shandling reportedly turned down an offer of four years at $20 million. O'Brien said yesterday that he has a five-year contract but declined to give an amount.

"Do I mind? No, I think it's realistic. As I understand it now, in fact, I barely beat out Norman Fell [a character actor on such sitcoms as 'Three's Company']," O'Brien said to much laughter.

"I mean, it made perfect sense to me. If I were them, my first choice would not be, 'Let's get Conan. He's a funny guy. He's had no experience. He doesn't have a suit or anything.' No, I think it's perfectly logical that they went for Shandling first."

O'Brien, a Harvard graduate, has no performing experience except for a few brief appearances in "Saturday Night Live" sketches when he was a writer for the show in the late '80s. Virtually all of his experience is as a writer and producer. In 1991, he joined "The Simpsons" as writer and producer, a job he held until last week.

NBC is trying to do its best to make O'Brien a household name and to make its affiliates feel more comfortable about an unknown taking over a show that generated $67.5 million in ad revenue last year.

Virtually all of NBC's top brass were on hand yesterday, standing nervously to the side of the stage at the Rainbow Room and watching O'Brien. The group included NBC President Bob Wright, Entertainment President Warren Littlefield and Lorne Michaels, who had picked O'Brien for the job. In addition to appearing tonight on "Late Night With David Letterman," O'Brien will be on "Today" this morning. After the news conference last night, he appeared with Tom Snyder on cable channel CNBC.

How did the news conference go from NBC's point of view?

Standing near a bank of elevators in 30 Rockefeller Plaza afterward, two senior executives were talking: "Look at this way," one said. "When CBS introduced Pat Sajak and his late-night show, Annie Leibowitz sure as hell wasn't at the press conference."

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