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So-so, but over and done: O'Brien notches his first Tonight

Conan O'Brien basks in his first Tonight Show ovation. Photo: Ed Bark

The hardest part is just getting through it.

After more than three months on layaway, Conan O'Brien re-emerged on a grander stage Monday to become just the fifth permanent host of NBC's Tonight Show.

Leaning somewhat top-heavily on three taped bits and a star turn by first guest Will Ferrell, he made it to the finish line with his auburn pompadour in full bloom but not his comedic talents. That's going to require an adjustment period, with O'Brien feeling his way at a new time, on a new coast and in the midst of an amusement park.

O'Brien made his entrance on a very bluish new Tonight set built from scratch at Universal Studios, where tram rides are part of the outdoor decor. He predictably took one for a ride during a pre-packaged segment that had him stepping in as tour conductor. It went on a little too long, but Conan did get off one inspired line as the tram wheeled its way through one of several man-made disasters.

"Either that's a flash flood or the Octomom's water just broke," he cracked.

O'Brien cold-opened the show by brushing his teeth and running down a checklist of other things to do before his first Tonight dawned. The last one, "Move to L.A.," caught him flat-footed. Still in New York City, he made a headlong cross country run, with a swim and a quick stop at a Victorian Doll museum thrown in. Encountering a locked studio door, he then climactically drove a mini-bulldozer through it. Not a bad way to start.

O'Brien has brought the Max Weinberg 7 and his old NBC Late Night theme song with him. And his original sidekick, Andy Richter, is back in play as the new Tonight Show's announcer and banterer.

Richter cackled a little too loudly at times during his boss's unexceptional first monologue, which included one of predecessor Jay Leno's old standbys, a Los Angeles Clippers joke. Once at his desk, O'Brien made it a point to thank Leno for his 17 years of service and for being "a very good friend to me."

Leno will be back in September to host his new Monday-Friday prime-time show from the Burbank lot that previously housed Tonight. O'Brien said he'd be glad to again have Leno as his lead-in, but we'll see about that after the competition for guests inevitably heats up between the two NBC shows.

After a third hit-and-miss taped segment -- O'Brien drove his battered '92 Ford Taurus about town -- Ferrell arrived Cleopatra-style on a throne carried by four bare-chested minions.

"I didn't want to upstage you. I just wanted to come in low-key," he explained.

Ferrell also of course wanted to promote his new movie, Land of the Lost, which comes out Friday. And on Sunday he'll be up for a Tony award for his one-man portrayal of George W. Bush in You're Welcome, America. The competition includes Liza Minnelli, who should win, Ferrell said. Still, he wanted America to know she's a Communist, which she isn't. But it made for a pretty funny riff.

O'Brien contentedly chuckled along before almost reverentially introducing the night's musical guest, Pearl Jam. They're promoting something, too, a new CD titled "Backspacer." But lead singer Eddie Vedder's vocals seemed notably muffled, rendering the band's performance distant and muddied.

"Wow, that went very quickly," O'Brien said at show's end.

Even so, he's probably thrilled to have it behind him. The first one's always a gut-churner.