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By Ken Tucker
Updated November 12, 2010 at 03:46 PM EST
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Conan began the first week of Conan with jittery self-consciousness and an obsession with the wound that created Team Coco. Second-night guest Tom Hanks put it most succinctly when he joked that the host needed to “blame something on someone other than Jay.” But O’Brien concluded his week on Thursday night with a serene, sauntering entrance and a confident rhythm.

Conan’s beginning to use the TBS set to interact with audience members spontaneously, and engaging in more conversation and comedy bits with his greatest asset, sidekick and national treasure Andy Richter. It’s clearer than ever that O’Brien is the crucial bridge between one generation (Leno, Letterman, Carson) and the one that followed (Kimmel, Fallon). As readers have pointed out, Conan, like Steve Allen and early David Letterman, connected the talk-show dots from topical monologue jokes to outside-the-studio filmed segments and absurdist recurring characters (what a relief: the Masturbating Bear, whom I like to think of as Conan’s costumed equivalent to Letterman’s Chris Elliott, has already shown up).

Sure, the marketplace is more crowded, the competition more fierce, now. O’Brien’s 11 p.m. time slot places his first half in competition with Jon Stewart and his second half against Leno and Letterman. Thus, his show literally straddles the TV industry’s biggest current conundrum: Do we go hip and niche, or still try for a broad, mass audience? But O’Brien is a good fit on TBS – he’s as mass-audience as the network’s Family Guy reruns and Tyler Perry sitcoms. At the same time, he’s retained his devilish streak. I loved it when he introduced the founder of the Turner Broadcasting System, Ted Turner – and it turned out to be a snarling, funny, mustachioed Will Forte riding a stuffed buffalo.

It’s likely that few on Team Coco even knew the “T” in TBS stands for Turner, but that’s something that O’Brien does well: He drags his audience up to his level, rather than lowering himself to theirs.

Thursday was a glimpse of what an impeccable Conan hour can be: a conversational monologue (no over-selling the jokes a la Leno); great chuckles at the desk with Andy; an engaging shaggy-dog anecdote from guest Michael Cera at the exact moment when I thought I was getting tired of Michael Cera; a funny/weird set by stand-up comic Jon Dore; and a delightfully leggy, chatty Julie Bowen, who sent the host into a dither. (“Thank you for not wearing pants”: If Letterman’s default-mode is Grumpy Old Man, Conan’s is Jumpy Adolescent Boy.)

There are some kinks to be worked out in the guest bookings. Next week, for example, he’s scheduled to have Harrison Ford, who’s been making the rounds, on Kimmel and most effectively on Letterman, where Dave frequently diverts the subject from whatever product the celeb is pushing. There’s no reason O’Brien needs to settle into the whatever-movie-star-is-out-flogging-a-movie route. The show ought to take a tip from Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show and venture more often outside the realm of usual suspects. (Ferguson will be hosting novelist Dennis Lehane next week, for instance, and he’s built relationships with recurring guests he vibes with, such as next week’s Jeff Goldblum — it’s a good strategy that other hosts, including Conan, should heed more frequently.)

But the bottom line: He’s doing just fine. More Andy, please.

What did you think of the first week of Conan?

Twitter: @kentucker

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