TV Article

A replacement for Letterman

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.'''

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