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Conan O'Brien on ''Late Night''

The little-known comedy writer has a tall order — filling David Letterman’s shoes

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It’s the most potentially explosive decision made at NBC since Dateline rigged a GM truck. Last week the network placed its Late Night franchise, which generates up to $70 million in annual ad revenues, in the hands of lanky, unknown 30-year-old comedy writer Conan O’Brien. The choice was even more shocking because familiar names like Dana Carvey, Dennis Miller, and Garry Shandling had been floated as possible replacements for David Letterman. With zero recognition, ”O’Brien will be an uphill sell to advertisers,” admits NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer.

That may be an understatement. ”At first I thought it was a prank,” says one senior media executive. ”We’ll probably buy time his first couple of weeks, but we’re not gonna make a long-term commitment.” Local NBC stations seem to have a bit more confidence in Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels’ latest comedy find. ”NBC could have gone down the middle of the road, and it wouldn’t have generated this kind of excitement,” says James B. Waterbury, head of the 209-member NBC Affiliate Board. ”They might fall on their face, but they might knock one out of the park.”

The major concern is O’Brien’s lack of on-camera experience. The carrot-topped cutup appeared in a few sketches while working for Michaels as a writer on SNL, which he left in 1991 to coproduce Fox’s The Simpsons. Earlier this year, O’Brien was recruited by Michaels to produce the post-Letterman Late Night. After auditions at several L.A. comedy clubs failed to produce a host, Michaels asked O’Brien to try out.

A special audition was arranged on April 13 on the Tonight Show set, with O’Brien doing a monologue and interviewing Mimi Rogers and Jason Alexander before an audience of NBC executives. Michaels watched the audition via satellite from New York and stunned NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield afterward by telling him that O’Brien should be the new host.

Nonetheless, Littlefield began talking with Shandling about the job, reportedly offering him a four-year, $20 million contract. ”Garry just decided the 12:30 a.m. time slot was not really what he wanted,” says a source close to Shandling.

Only hours after Shandling stepped aside, NBC called O’Brien at his Simpsons office and offered him the job. ”He turned paler than usual,” says Matt Groening, The Simpsons‘ creator. ”That’s the last I saw him. I suppose he’ll be back to clean out his desk.”

Still reeling from the news, O’Brien made a brief, uneasy appearance with Jay Leno on the April 26 Tonight Show. Shifting his weight awkwardly and glancing sheepishly at the floor, he seemed more like an audience member picked by Leno for a skit than the newly annointed King of Late Night.

”I imagine he was nervous,” says Leno. ”I didn’t try to do a bit with him or anything, because the press will hammer you. He got an ad-lib off (about Branford Marsalis leaving Leno to become O’Brien’s band leader) that was pretty funny.”

NBC wants O’Brien to be more than pretty funny — it’s calling him the voice of a new generation. But with the jury still out on Leno, it seems an even bigger risk to replace Letterman with a novice. ”It’s not like NBC is launching Conan off a firmly established program,” says Betsy Frank, senior vice president of Saatchi & Saatchi advertising. ”If he were launching following Carson, I’d be less concerned.”

O’Brien’s friends think he’s up to the task. ”He’s been doing a talk show in the Simpsons‘ rewrite room for the past two years — and he’s brilliant,” says Groening. ”Now America will get to see him do it.”

Not Separated at Birth
Sure, they both have reddish hair and should use plenty of sunblock, but what else do Conan O’Brien and David Letterman have in common? Other comparisons, in relative terms:

Dave: 34 years old when he became Late Night host; tall; born in Indiana; has an ordinary first name.
Conan: 30 years old when he became Late Night host; tall; born in Massachusetts; has an unusual first name. (It’s pronounced Co’ nan.)

Dave: Dry wit first revealed during a breakthrough 1978 appearance on The Tonight Show.
Conan: Reputed wit was concealed during his first appearance on The Tonight Show.

Dave: Was a regular on two failed shows (Starland Vocal Band and Mary) before getting his big break from NBC.
Conan: Was a regular writer on two hit shows (Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons) before getting his big break from NBC.

Dave: Graduated in 1969 from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. Knew fellow Hoosier and former Today show host Jane Pauley.
Conan: Graduated in 1985 from Harvard University. Knew classmate and future Today show producer Jeff Zucker.