September 18, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

”I think the show is really on a roll now,” said Conan O’Brien, as he sucked the marrow out of a goat’s leg. Ever-helpful talk-show host Conan O’Brien has graciously suggested this intro to his own story. needs work, but not bad for a beginner — he’s clearly fluent in celebrity magazine-speak. If this night job doesn’t work out…

”The important thing is to take it to the next level,” he continued, as he sipped on his chicken and stabbed furtively at his Pellegrino.

Again, nice try; O’Brien is actually nibbling delicately on a barbecued-chicken sandwich. But point taken: The former critical punching bag known as NBC’s Late Night With Conan O’Brien is, in fact, heading to the next level. Enough with David Letterman’s jaded ’80s irony. Enough with Jay Leno’s predictable, ripped-from-the-headlines monologue jokes. Conan — just like South Park and There’s Something About Mary — looms large in the current cultural craze for blissful absurdity and cartoonishness.

He’s brought us such groundbreaking characters as the Shirtless Moron and the Masturbating Bear, and we’ve rewarded him with an impressive 37 percent jump over his first-year ratings. Indeed, the cerebrally silly orange-haired late-night host has become a dorm favorite to rival Ayn Rand and Monet posters. And come Sept. 16, O’Brien will host a fifth-anniversary show in prime time, of all mainstream places.

”We’ve learned to make people laugh; now we have to make them think,” said O’Brien, as he tinkered furiously with his space robot.

Finally, the guy’s getting the hang of it.

In a shabby writing room on the ninth floor of New York’s 30 Rockefeller Center, the Harvard-schooled O’Brien gathers with some of the nation’s sharpest comedic minds to hash out the next day’s show. What sophisticated secrets of the writing craft can a visitor learn?

”Show him the Farting Wolf!” pipes up one scribe.

O’Brien, 35, lets out a sheepish sigh. Too late. The visitor is already getting treated to the venerable Late Night ritual: Whenever one of the writers has to pass gas, he (and it usually is a he) dons a flimsy paper wolf mask, climbs onto a coffee table, arches his back, locks eyes with one of the other staffers, then lets one rip.

That’s the gust of new comedy you’re smelling. A surprisingly fresh blast of puppets, goofy accents, and high-concept flatulence. It’s spawned such Conan trademarks as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog — a Don Rickles-like canine puppet who threatens to poop on guests (”If anyone in comedy says they’re not a fan of bathroom humor, they’re lying,” insists O’Brien). And then there’s the famous ”lips” routine — a still photo of, say, President Clinton with an absurdly phony mouth that bellows hillbilly-ese. ”Nee-haw!”

Such seemingly random comedy is far from it. When O’Brien — a little-known former Simpsons and Saturday Night Live writer — got the surprise nod to replace his treasured David Letterman at 12:35, he set a goal: Become the un-Dave. None of the ”found comedy” — the smirking banter with deli owners, the phone calls to real-life shlubs across the street. Instead, O’Brien returned to the sillier sketch comedy of Johnny Carson, but Carson filtered through Andy Kaufman. ”There’s this trend in comedy the last 15 years that people want to be more cool than funny,” O’Brien says. ”At the beginning of Carson’s show there was a montage of him in ridiculous outfits, wearing a wig or a giant Carnac hat.” And like Carson, neither 6’4”, freckle-skinned O’Brien nor gruff, stout sidekick Andy Richter is afraid to look foolish. ”Conan always used to say, he loves that we can turn the sound off and the show can still be entertaining,” says Conan writer-performer Robert Smigel.

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