Conan Crushes in “Tonight Show” Debut

First night's ratings leave Letterman in the dust

Conan O’Brien's first night at the desk once manned by Johnny Carson and Jay Leno was a  rousing success in the ratings book.

O'Brien's debut as host of the “Tonight Show” Monday scored a strong 7.1 overnight rating and drew the show's seventh-biggest Monday night audience since Leno started in 1992. Nielsen figures for 56 key markets had O'Brien handily beating "Late Show" with David Letterman, which drew a 2.8.

TIME magazine television blogger James Poniewozik said O'Brien kept his trademark wackiness while showing a polish worthy of his predecessors.

"The guy we saw on the Tonight Show stage was polished, off-the-cuff funny, dapper, poised—but not, substantively, all that different from the Conan of Late Night," wrote Poniewozik.

The gangly comic is ushering in a new era for the longest-running entertainment program on television by becoming the fifth host in the show's 55 year history. He kicked off the show with a filmed segment of him running from New York to his new Los Angeles digs, then jumped right in with a mix of topical humor -- which is the show’s signature -- and self-deprecation -- which is Conan’s signature.

"I've timed this moment perfectly,” O’Brien said during his inaugural ‘Tonight Show” monologue.  “I'm on a last-place network, I moved to a state that's bankrupt, and tonight's show is sponsored by General Motors."

O’Brien, who admitted to being nervous about the debut, paid reverence to his “Tonight Show” predecessors.

“I remember watching Johnny Carson as a kid and saying that’s what I want to be when I grow up,” O’Brien said.  “I can imagine a kid watching tonight saying ‘what’s wrong with that man’s hair?’”

Once O’Brien sat behind the “Tonight Show” desk he honored Leno, who signed off as “Tonight Show” host on Friday with a monster 8.8 rating.

“He’s going to be back on the show in like two days,” he said, suggesting that NBC would realize what a mistake it was to move him to the vaunted 11:30 time slot.

All kidding aside, O’Brien knows that his early days at the "Tonight Show" helm are going to be scrutinized even more closely than his debut 16 years ago as the virtually unknown host of NBC's "Late Night."

While demographics, not sheer size, is the key in drawing television audiences, O'Brien's debut "bodes well for how he's likely to do when adults 18-49 numbers come out later," wrote TV Week.

He's bringing his brand of awkward comedy to the institution. None of his staples, like the Masturbating Bear or Triumph the Insult Comic made an appearance on the first show. But he kept his familiar "Late Show" theme music -- played by Max Weinberg and the newly christened "Tonight Show Band." Former sidekick Andy Richter was back as O'Brien's announcer, which should make Conan fans happy.

Even if Conan's comedy takes off at the 11:30 slot, the show is not without competition.

O’Brien will have to vie for late night supremacy with Letterman at CBS, Steven Colbert on Comedy Central and Jimmy Kimmel on ABC. Letterman, for his part, acknowledged the “Tonight Show” change during his monologue Monday and took an immediate shot.

"I'm Dave Letterman. I'm still here. I knocked off another competitor," he said.

As O’Brien pointed out during his monologue, the television landscape is not as rosy as it was 17 years ago when Johnny Carson retired.

At that time, Leno inherited a first-place show. He lost ground to Letterman for a few years, but returned to the top and has remained there for 14 years. He joked on his last show that the feat allows him to get his security deposit back.

Leno — who will continue on the NBC schedule with a prime-time comedy hour five nights a week beginning Sept. 14 — drew 16.1 million viewers for his 1993 debut and was averaging 5.2 million viewers this season, according to Nielsen.

Neilsen numbers for O’Brien’s first show won't be available for a few days, but his first guests were a hit with the studio audience.

Will Ferrell entered like a Pharaoh, seated on a pillowed carriage carried by strapping ancient Egyptian looking men.

“I didn’t want to upstage you,” Ferrell, who is promoting his movie "Land of the Lost" said to O’Brien.

"No one thought he could do it," Ferrell said. "I mean, really, no one thought you could do it"

Pearl Jam also stopped by and played a song off of their soon-to-be-released album.

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