The early returns on “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” are mostly positive from both critics and the ratings.
O’Brien‘s debut on NBC’s late-night flagship Monday night drew pretty strong ratings in the overnight metered markets. The show scored a 7.1 rating/17 share in the 56 metered markets, which cover about 70 percent of the country. That’s way above “The Tonight Show’s” metered-market average of 3.9 for this quarter and the best Monday performance for the show since January 2005, when it did a tribute to Johnny Carson after the former host’s death.
Conan’s ratings did fall somewhat short of Jay Leno’s final “Tonight Show” on Friday. That hour scored an 8.8 in the metered markets (final numbers from Nielsen won’t be available for a few more days).
Critics mostly enjoyed O’Brien’s debut too, though some questioned the show’s reliance on an abundance of taped comedy bits. Here’s a sampling of what reviewers had to say:
Maureen Ryan, Chicago Tribune: “Though he seemed a little nervous and the humor seemed a bit broader, generally speaking, than it was on ‘Late Night,’ Conan on ‘The Tonight Show’ worked just fine.”
Alan Sepinwall, Star-Ledger: “It wasn’t a bad show, and Conan has certainly banked so much goodwill from me and most ‘Late Night’ viewers that him being uneven on his first night isn’t that big a deal. And I’m certainly not predicting doom for him … but I do wonder if any Jay fans who were on the fence about giving this freakishly tall replacement a shot may have hopped off the fence after last night to wait for their man to return in primetime in September.”
Tom Shales, Washington Post: “Moving up to the big time, and relocating to the earlier time slot, seems to have robbed Conan of much of his charm. Much — but not all. He still comes across as an earnestly likable goof, and though hardly a comedy monologist of previous host Jay Leno’s skill, he has a skewed sensibility that is unlike any other TV host’s. He just shouldn’t spread himself so thick.”
James Poniewozik, Time: “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.’ (He even gave a trademark herky-jerk dance move as he came on stage.) The question: has Conan O’Brien grown big enough for 11:30, or has 11:30 grown small enough for Conan O’Brien?”
Lane Brown, NYmag.com Vulture: “Isn’t Los Angeles supposed to sap a New Yorker’s edge and make him dull? We have no evidence thus far that that’s happened here. Didn’t ‘Annie Hall’ teach us that the West Coast is only good for rights on red and recycling garbage into television? The weather in all those outdoor sketches looked pretty nice, too. He’s only been there for three months, but if the only major side effect of Conan’s move to L.A. is a barely perceptible tan and a slightly mellower vibe, it sort of makes us wonder how much more floor space we could get out there for what we’re paying in New York.”
Mary McNamara, LA Times: “If Monday night is any indication, O’Brien is not as interested in filling Jay’s shoes as in buying a much newer pair. At 46, O’Brien may be the oldest man to assume the ‘Tonight Show’ mantle, but with his Dennis the Menace hair and semi-guilty shifting eyes, he still looks like a kid who’s hijacked his older brother’s (very nice) suit.”