O'Brien succeeds Jay Leno, as Letterman jokes, "I knocked off another competitor"
Credit: Sthanlee B. Mirador/Shooting Star

It’s a new day in late night, and it has a new King of Cool. As Jay Leno’s successor, Conan O’Brien assumed the reins of NBC’s Tonight Show on Monday, in case anyone missed that newsflash.

“At least I know the ‘Applause’ sign works,” the lanky redhead declared in his opening monologue after a prolonged ovation. “I’ve timed this moment perfectly,” he added. “Think about it: I’m on a last place network, I moved to a state that’s bankrupt and tonight’s show is sponsored by General Motors.”

A familiar face to viewers since 1993 as the New York-based host of NBC’s even later Late Night, O’Brien, 46, also joked, “A lot of people have been asking me, ‘Will your show be any different now that you’ve moved to Los Angeles?’ I tell them all, ‘No. Mi programa no va a cambiar porque estoy en la ciudad de Los Angeles.’ ”

First-night sketches included a comedy routine in which O’Brien forgot to move from New York to L.A., leaving him to race on foot across country, stopping only at a vintage doll museum. Another had him leading a Universal Studio tour, taking the tourist trams off the lot and into street traffic.

Will Ferrell, who welcomed O’Brien out West with a tip to eat at a Pasadena Burger King, and Pearl Jam were the guests.

Letterman Counter-Programs

O’Brien is now the fifth host to sit behind the Tonight desk. From 1954 to 1957, there was the raconteur and musician Steve Allen; from 1957 to 1962, the urbane conversationalist Jack Paar; from 1962 to 1992, the gold standard, Johnny Carson; and from 1992 until last Friday, the affable jokester Jay Leno.

“This is a huge night for me,” O’Brien admitted. “I remember watching Johnny Carson as a kid and thinking, ‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up.’ And I’m sure right now somewhere in America, there’s a little kid watching me and thinking, ‘What is wrong with that man’s hair?’ ”

Meanwhile, on CBS’s Late Show, host David Letterman – who idolized Carson (whom he had hoped to replace) but whose style has been compared to that of Steve Allen (who specialized in “Man on the Street” parodies) – counter-programmed Conan’s debut with guest Bill Cosby and a call from his mother, who said, “Well, David, I see you didn’t get the Tonight Show again.”

Letterman, 62, told his appreciative studio audience in New York, “I’m Dave Letterman. I’m still here. I knocked off another competitor.”