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Conan's Tonight Show: Think "Murder, She Wrote, for a Younger Demo"

Conan O'Brien, Late Night with Conan O'Brien Dana Edelson/NBC

In less than one week, a late-night transition five years in the making will finally be realized, when Conan O'Brien takes over the reins of the Tonight Show. And despite the months of hype preceding the move, it's an event no one is anticipating more highly than O'Brien himself—if for no other reason than to end the speculation.

"I had this feeling in 1993 as well," he said in a conference call this morning, likening the experience to his then takeover of Late Night. "Most people thought in 1993, 'Oh my god, he's gotta be petrified.'

"But it's the period beforehand that drives you crazy. So much about these shows is just doing them…I feel like a racehorse that was put in the chute five years ago and I'm kicking at the side, like, let's go!"

Which isn't to say there won't be some first-night nerves and an inevitable, possibly not-so-slight, tweaking of the late-night institution's tone in general.

"I think at some point my show is going to have to morph into a detective show. I think four weeks in, Andy Richter and I will be solving crimes. It's going to be Murder, She Wrote for a younger demo."

At least if all else fails, O'Brien is planning on starting off with a star-studded bang...

While NBC already announced that Will Ferrell and Pearl Jam will serve as the inaugural guests on the Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien, the host-in-waiting tonight revealed that his first week lineup is "a dream."

"It's a fun week...I always have a rule, which is don't overthink this," he said. "It's the Tonight Show and it's a big responsibility, but man, it would be a shame not to enjoy it."

In addition to Ferrell, Tom Hanks, Green Day, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Sheryl Crow, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ryan Seacrest are all scheduled to appear on O'Brien's first week. As for why, exactly, he chose that lineup...

"Hanks is one of the great talk-show guests of all time. He's a raconteur and incredibly likeable. Paltrow is this great movie actress and style icon…Ryan Seacrest and I are lovers, so that made a lot of sense."

And while his guest roster is already enviable, O'Brien dismissed speculation that his long-term booking plans may potentially clash with the 10 p.m.-bound Jay Leno.

"I think the guest thing has sort of been overblown. I got great guests on the Late Night show and I was farther down the totem pole than I am now," he said. "To me, it's not who gets the guest first, it's what you do with the guest once you have them on."

And for O'Brien, that will inevitably involve something "silly," one of several hallmarks that will set him apart from his Tonight Show forebear.

"There are a lot of things about Jay and I that are different. He has a 220-car collection, I have a Ford Taurus.

"Jay established himself in comedy as probably one of the best stand-ups of all time. Jay loves the jokes. That's his first love. I like jokes, but I really love the funny ideas."

A few of those funny ideas may sound familiar to Late Night fans.

"We prided ourselves on having a lot of produced comedy," he said of his former show. "I will probably try and continue that tradition…I will probably go a little heavy on the produced comedy. That's something I feel is one of my strong suits."

Among the Late Night bits making their way to O'Brien's custom-built Universal soundstage are Noches de Passion With Conan O'Brien, a Spanish-language soap opera meant to celebrate NBC's merging with Telemundo; Year 2000, which the funnyman claims is "just a good way to deliver jokes"; Jim Gaffigan's Pale Force cartoon and, of course, the comic pièce de résistance:

"I see no reason why Triumph the Insult Comic Dog can't file reports for us."

In addition, old pal Richter will be back, serving as the show's announcer and go-to comedy foil.

"Andy will be my funny friend who's there with me. He and I have such a great connection and such great chemistry—it's hard to find that in television," O'Brien said, adding that Richter will be there "to support me or attack me as the situation calls for."

And appear in some live and taped pieces along the way. Not that it will be all familiar territory for viewers.

"It would be a shame to dust off the Late Night show and move it to 11:30. We're moving from one playground to another playground for the first time in 16 years. It's an opportunity to think of new ideas.

"People laugh when they just think of me in Los Angeles. I think people would be disappointed if I didn't reinvent myself to some degree.

"These shows are such an extension of the host. The golden rule at the Tonight Show is a host has to put his stamp on it. That's the only way it's going to work."

It'll also be the only way to stop the inevitable comparisons between his Tonight Show tenure and Leno's, a transition that O'Brien says couldn't have gone more smoothly.

"There's no denying that the media, and for good reason, like conflict. It's a better story. But Jay and I have always personally gotten along really well…He's happy, I'm happy.

"He's done a great job with the show and taken such good care of the franchise."

As for the honor of being Leno's final guests when he signs off this Friday, don't expect any customary roasting—and subsequent spotlight stealing—of the outgoing comic.

"I'm there as a guest of Jay. I'm going to have plenty of opportunity to make a jackass of myself in that hour…It's Jay's night. I don't have any illusions about it being my night."

That won't come until Monday.

"For the first time in my career, I'm going to be performing for people who are fully awake," O'Brien said, noting that that alone—and not some imagined disparity between what can pass at his old time slot versus his new one—will likely be the biggest change in his show.

"People act like there's a tear in the fabric of time and space between 11:30 and 12:30," he said. "I did comedy I really liked when I hosted the Emmys and that was prime time."

He said that he's looked to the "800-pound gorilla," his former predecessor and now competitor David Letterman, for some indirect inspiration.

"Letterman was very successful there. He came to 11:30, you look at it, and so many of those things he brought with him. He reinvented himself as well, but he brought things with him."

Still, O'Brien isn't planning on changing his schtick, whether it's embraced by an audience share as large as Leno's or not.

"My whole experience at Late Night, I never once said, 'I'm going to do X because that's going to be a great rating.' I always did the thing I thought was funny.

"My hope is that if I do that, then the ratings will follow. The only way I've ever been able to do comedy is to put blinders on and go with my own instincts."

So far, his instincts have led to a tailor-made studio that reflects the legacy of the franchise he's inheriting.

When he first met with set designers more than a year ago, O'Brien gave them one direction: elegant. Which means viewers can expects an art deco vibe when they tune in next week.

"I have a certain sensibility and I bring my comedy persona to this, but it's the Tonight Show. It's a venerated, beloved television franchise that's almost 60 years old. That doesn't mean I can't do silly things in that space, but the space itself should be beautiful."

And as for that familiar refrain, O'Brien said he is sticking with his Late Night theme song, though he says they have "turbocharged it a little bit."

It was one of many natural decisions O'Brien says came easy.

"The biggest danger of me taking over the Tonight Show is to overthink. I need to worry about making June 1 funny, then I need to worry about making June 2 funny, and if I do that, the audience will find it. That's my belief."


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