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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Conan: He's Off ! (to a Shaky Start) : Television: NBC's 'Late Night' host rates high on likability. While that isn't enough, it's still too early to count him out.

September 17, 1993

The present age of instant communications casts media in the role of society's microwave.

Their frantic rush to judge extends beyond President Clinton, who was deemed a klutzy failure by many hair-trigger pundits and reporters almost immediately after taking office.

It also covers talk-show hosts.

On Monday night, for example, KCAL-TV Channel 9 considered seeking access to an early feed of the debut of NBC's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" so that it could offer a live critical evaluation of David Letterman's post-"Tonight Show" successor in its newscast prior to the show airing in Los Angeles that night. Conan's first night.

Overmatched by television in this speed-freaking derby, some print entities have sought to cut their own corners in response to competitive pressures, going to ridiculous extremes to inform readers about events before they happen.

Far more absurd than Channel 9's attempt at a quickie analysis was a lengthy critique of O'Brien by the Associated Press. "As a freshman late-night host," it said, "he may already be flunking." The AP went on to twist the dagger, saying that O'Brien "shows few signs of being cut out to host a talk show, and the show he's hosting simply doesn't cut it."

How premature were these words? Well, they appeared in newspapers before the taping of O'Brien's first show.

Say hello to criticism, Carnak the Magnificent-style.

And just how was the AP able to achieve this amazing journalistic coup sight unseen? As the story noted, its insights into O'Brien reflected not the writer's own empiricism, but "the regrettably unanimous reaction from a number of audience members, including AP staffers, questioned after attending 'Late Night' dress rehearsals the last few weeks. (Reporters have been barred from these previews.)"

In other words, AP had planted staffers in the audience, as if this were a story of such global significance and resonance that subterfuge was required? As if advance word on the debut of a 12:30 a.m. talk-show host whom relatively few people even knew about was so crucial to America that it was necessary, "regrettably," to doom him even before his first words traveled across the airwaves?

As Carnak might say, may the bird of flatulence squat on your face.

On the other hand, almost any assessment of a five-night-a-week work in progress like O'Brien runs the risk of being premature. And that includes this one.

So consider the following review of O'Brien's initial three shows Part 1 of a critique in progress.

Perhaps only on television can someone get paid $1 million a year to learn his job on the job. Such is the case with O'Brien, the 30-year-old former writer for "The Simpsons" whose performance skills this week appeared almost negligible. A near shutout.

O'Brien has a nice, self-effacing way (the rule of thumb is to make fun of yourself before someone else does), and he tends to refreshingly blurt out what he's thinking. "I think my voice is a problem. I have an annoying voice, don't I, America?" And despite a grating, nervous laugh reminiscent of Red Skelton's giggle, O'Brien is so likable (he gets a B+ in likability) that you find yourself pulling for him and actually forming your mouth in the laugh position, in preparation for something funny.

Throughout the week, however, those facial muscles began to atrophy.

Monday's pre-taped opening was a classic in unfulfilled potential, a cleverly written bit that might have been hilarious had O'Brien the ability to execute it. But he didn't. It depicted him getting constantly reminded on his way to work that everyone would be comparing him to Letterman. Yes, yes, yes. But O'Brien's body language, his delivery, his timing, his tone, his entire attitude was all wrong. Letterman--now he would have made it funny.

Some other early grades:

* The Monologues: D. Laborious seems to be the operative word here. O'Brien hasn't the gift, so why not scrap them?

* The Interviews: C+. O'Brien began the week by appearing not to have a clue about how to carry out this obligatory exercise. And even though he still tends to draw embarrassing blanks, he's improved in a very short time and is not as apt to struggle when asking a question. In fact, when he just kicks back and relaxes, he can be very charming.

Compared with late-night's other new network talk-show host, moreover, O'Brien looks rather good. Although still an infant at this, he's already a sharper questioner than Fox's Chevy Chase, who is a frequent victim of interviewer's block. And, unlike Chase, who wears his boredom and disinterest like a badge of honor, O'Brien appears genuinely interested in the people to whom he's talking.

* The Guests: C+. Ranging from hard-working John Goodman and effervescent Mary Tyler Moore (who energized the entire show) to glum, sardonic Tony Randall (for the premiere, no less), they were a curious mix.

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