Conan O'Brien has finally started to fill Dave's shoes

Take a stroll through Sam Ash Guitars in Manhattan and you’ll have a helluva time figuring out what year it is. What with all the AC/DC mags, Eric Clapton songbooks, and sunburst-colored Strats, it might as well be 1976. Or 1984. Or 1993. But a brief meeting between a tall customer in search of an amplifier and an overeager salesman illustrates exactly why it’s 1996.

Hey, just wanted to say I’m a big fan of your show. Hilarious, man, very hilarious.

The 6’4” object of adoration humbly swallows the praise. Thank you, appreciate it, thanks. Now, about that amp

You’re really improving, man. Getting better every day. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Soon you’ll be better than Letterman.

Late Night host Conan O’Brien has to draw the line there. ”Let’s not get crazy,” he begins.

Hold it. Cut tape.

Conan O’Brien? NBC’s sad-sack default heir to Letterman’s 12:30 a.m. slot? The dude with that… that hair? The guy most likely to get canceled?

Sounds like somebody isn’t staying up past their bedtime.

”Technically, she didn’t mount me,” O’Brien, 32, deadpans from his dressing-room sofa. He’s just finished taping show No. 533; the mounting in question occurred during the warm-up, while he was belting out Elvis’s ”Burning Love.” Taken by the moment, a young woman in the audience rose from her seat, danced toward O’Brien, and gyrated into his crotch. O’Brien jumped back in mock shock, but the surprise wasn’t entirely faked. This is a guy who once couldn’t fill the back row of his studio, let alone inspire groupie behavior.

”I’d come out,” recalls O’Brien of those first shows, ”and yell, ‘HI, EVERYBODY!!!’ and the audience was like, ‘Hello. And you are?”’

These days, even the aisles are full. In fact, Late Night is becoming the cool after-hours joint, handily winning its time slot (2 million viewers, up 18 percent from the first year) and drawing the highest percentage of 18- to 49-year-olds of the four talk titans. Late Night‘s talent bookers, forced at the start to scrape the bottom of the celebrity barrel (we’re talking Wink Martindale and Sy Sperling), have graduated to, if not A list, then at least B+ list talent (Sting, Martin Scorsese). More impressive still, the music biz has come to consider the program the premier showcase for new bands (Sheryl Crow, Green Day, and the Cranberries gigged here first). ”Late Night sells records,” raves Atlantic Records general manager Ron Shapiro. ”They certainly take more chances than the others do.” O’Brien’s personal hip quotient is rising too, with a sharp Letterman appearance Jan. 26 and a Single Guy guest spot Feb. 1.

So what’s changed? Improved banter between O’Brien and his postironic sidekick, Andy Richter, for one thing. Breakout franchise sketches (”If They Mated,” ”Desk Drive”), for another. But the lion’s share of credit goes to O’Brien himself; after nearly two and a half years, he’s decaffeinated down to assured and host-like rather than jittery and guestlike. ”Conan’s not auditioning anymore,” says executive producer Lorne Michaels. ”He knows he has the job. It just took a while for that to sink in.”

Time, it seems, has proved to be both ally and bittersweet barometer. ”There’s a huge picture of me near the NBC studio elevators,” says O’Brien. ”It was taken a few months before I went on the air. Sometimes I’ll walk past it late at night and think, ‘Those are the eyes of a 29-year-old kid who doesn’t know. That idiot has no idea what he’s about to go through.”’

O’Brien’s once-in-a-lifetime-dream-come-true big break began taking shape in January 1993, when Letterman announced he was headed to CBS. Scrambling to fill the slot with an established TV presence, NBC pursued Bob Costas and Garry Shandling, both of whom declined. Meanwhile, O’Brien — then a writer at The Simpsons — was asked by his old Saturday Night Live boss, Lorne Michaels, to produce the show. He nixed the idea, saying he wanted to perform. Michaels had a crazy idea: Why not audition O’Brien? Crazier still, he got the job.

The April 26, 1993, announcement was greeted with a resounding Who the hell is this guy? Then the facts dribbled out: Born in Brookline, Mass.; the third of six children born to a lawyer and a doctor; graduated from Harvard and served as president of the Harvard Lampoon; wrote for Not Necessarily the News, The Simpsons, and SNL; and oh, yes, owned no major acting credits but had performed with improv groups.

A limp resume for an on-air host, to be sure, but to those who had worked with him, the job seemed like a good fit. ”It was fluky, but it made sense,” says Simpsons creator Matt Groening. ”A lot of writers mutter their jokes, but Conan could actually act out entire scenes doing all the characters. It was quite entertaining.”

Not too many were amused when Late Night launched on Sept. 13, as O’Brien looked amateurish and reviews looked like professional hit jobs. (”Chevy Chase has done the honorable thing. Now Conan O’Brien should follow him off the cliff,” wrote Washington Post critic Tom Shales, who recently named O’Brien one of ”Twenty-Five Reasons Not to Give Up on TV.”) Even O’Brien’s camp admits the results were painful to watch. ”He’s the funniest guy I’ve ever met in terms of rapid-fire, free-association humor,” says Late Night writer Robert Smigel. ”But when the show started, I’d have friends say, ‘It’s not really Conan up there.’ I think he felt he had to play the role of The Talk-Show Host.”

A flurry of memos arrived from NBC execs: The comedy bits are too long! Make the monologue more topical! Somebody please fix his hair! The real brow mopping began a few months later when NBC affiliates started inquiring about replacement hosts, including Later‘s Greg Kinnear.

The network responded by doling out only 12-week extensions, which kept the rumor mill churning, but behind the scenes it was supportive. ”We knew that whoever took over from Letterman was going to be beaten mercilessly by the press,” reasons NBC’s senior VP Rick Ludwin. ”But we thought that if Conan could take the blows for 10 rounds, people would respect him.” O’Brien graciously supports NBC’s hesitancy: ”I don’t blame them for not saying I’d be here for the next five years, because I don’t think I deserved it then.”

Part of the problem was that Conan O’Brien was still groping for a TV persona. As a result, he gave his writers too much freedom, then couldn’t pull off their overly ambitious ideas. ”Here was a guy who has been on both sides now, so he was definitely torn,” Smigel says. ”If he had been more of a prick, maybe things would have changed quicker.”

One candidate for change: Andy Richter. The sophomoric humor of the rotund writer/sidekick was a frequent critical target. But just as NBC was standing by O’Brien, he stood by Richter. ”When people really didn’t like us, at least I had one friend,” O’Brien explains. ”The theory was, we’ve only got two wagons but maybe we can put them in a circle.” Says Richter in the duo’s defense: ”When Dave started out, he had the luxury of toiling in obscurity. We had to get good real fast.”

The first turning point, ironically enough, was David Letterman’s Late Night appearance in February 1994. ”It was a morale boost,” says O’Brien. ”I’m thinking, If the guy who created the 12:30 thing comes on and says we’re smart and funny, let’s go.”

O’Brien’s newfound confidence was buoyed by the failure of one of Late Night‘s closest competitors, the syndicated Jon Stewart Show. And his April 1995 performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (now, that’s a tough room) gave him the choicest press of his career. ”One of the best nights of my life,” O’Brien enthuses. ”When the big laughs started coming, I thought, ‘Here I am with the President. I can reach over and put a yarmulke on his head. I’m running things now.”’

NBC is getting the message. In November the network picked up another option on his original five-year, $5.5 million contract, this time for a year. (A bonus brings his salary to almost $2 million in 1996.) ”I’ve paid a lot of dues in two and a half years,” he says. ”I’m getting some of the good stuff now.”

That includes only four days of taping instead of five, leaving him more time for playing rockabilly music and for girlfriend Lynn Kaplan, 27, a Late Night talent booker. The once-dogged comparisons with Letterman have stopped too. ”Initially we were hurt by it,” O’Brien admits. ”The volume on everything was turned way up, like, ‘Who do you think you are, man? You killed Dave!’ At the same time, Dave’s still being on the air has helped show that what we do is very different. It’s creating some breathing space for us.”

Breathing space, yes, but don’t go crowding him just yet. Ex-whipping boy O’Brien is wary of too much love. ”I don’t mind if people are just pleasantly disposed or have a warm feeling toward me,” says O’Brien. ”Even the absence of a cold feeling would be enough. I’m just happy to be here.”