O’Brien: ‘Tonight Show’ will be funny pill to swallow

"The Tonight Show" with Conan O’Brien will not be the same as the show was with Jay, Johnny, Steve or Jack.

But though O’Brien said he’s not sure where the future may take it, he promised to stay true to the traditions that made it the longest-running and highest-rated late show on television. You’ll see more comedy sketches — including some brought over from his “Late Night” days — but he said his new set will be art deco and reminiscent of the four hosts who came before him. “It should look as if Steve Allen could materialize, or Jack Paar or Johnny Carson, or Jay Leno — any of those people could suddenly materialize and go into that space and host it,” O’Brien said. He said he’ll follow the advice Johnny Carson gave him in 1993, when his retirement from “The Tonight Show” triggered O’Brien’s start as the “Late Night” host. “When I first met him, he told me ‘Just be yourself,'” O’Brien said. “I think the golden rule with ‘The Tonight Show’ is a host has to put his stamp on it,” he said. “That’s the only way it’s going to work.” O’Brien said he would not “just dust off the ‘Late Night’ show and move it to 11:30.” “I think people would be disappointed if I didn’t reinvent myself to some degree,” he said. He’s told his writers they’ll have to be “a little more on the ball” since “for the first time in my career, I’m performing for people that are fully awake,” he said. No more random comedy fillers such as “a cactus playing the flute for no reason.” Some regular features — including Triumph the Insult Comic Dog — will follow O’Brien from New York to his new set on the Universal lot in Los Angeles. He’ll “go probably a little heavy on the produced comedy,” he said. Moving to the West Coast gives him a “fresh start” with new places to explore for his sketches, O’Brien said. But he said he isn’t sure — just days before his first show — what his version of the show will become.

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“The doing of these shows is actually where you find what the show is,” he said. “I think we have some really fun stuff planned, but we’re going to realize things about this ‘Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien’ after we make 15 of them.” “They’re kind of organic,” he said. “Things happen in the news, things happen in the world. ‘The Tonight Show,’ especially, has to react to that. And we may have quite a different show a year from now.” But the hour-earlier time slot will not change what’s funny, he said. “‘The Tonight Show’ is really funny. You can experience it at 11:30 or you can watch it on your computer the next morning while you’re eating your oatmeal,” he said. “People can overstate the idea that there’s a comedy barrier that separates 11:30 and 12:30, and that you’ll ignite anti-matter if you bring 12:30 into 11:30.” He said changes in technology, which have made the show available online, will continue to change the way people get it. “‘The Tonight Show’ might be a pill that you take that you can get at the drug store,” he said. “People swallow it with a vodka tonic and say ‘Good monologue, Conan,’ and then go to sleep.” “So, I have no idea where we’re going. But it should be kind of exciting to see what happens.”