Here's a strange but true and very Canadian story about Conan O'Brien, who takes over as host of "The Tonight Show" on Monday.

In the early '90s, before he became host of "Late Night," O'Brien went on a trip to Vancouver with his buddy Greg Daniels ("The Office"). Watching TV in their hotel room, the two comedy writers became fascinated with a long-running CBC series: "The Beachcombers."

"It was about guys picking up logs in the water!" said O'Brien, summing up 18 seasons of the series.

In particular, O'Brien and Daniels were mesmerized by the performance of Pat John as the native business partner, Jesse Jim. John's odd, halting cadence was so out of left field that O'Brien and Daniels decided that they had to see for themselves if this guy was for real.

They found his name in the Vancouver phone book, called him up and went over to where he was living at the time. They told him they were producers scouting for talent for an upcoming project - but really, they just wanted to meet Jesse Jim.

What this tells you about the new "Tonight Show" host is that a) he can find the funny in the strangest places, b) he's not afraid to get up close and explore it, and c) he watches way too much television.

The third point is probably not true all these years later as O'Brien gets set to take over "Tonight." Since handing off "Late Night" to Jimmy Fallon in February, O'Brien, 46, has been busy moving his wife and two young children from New York to L.A., glad-handing with dozens of NBC affiliates all over America and shooting test episodes of his new series.

"It has been a marathon," the late-night talk show host told critics on an NBC conference call earlier this week.

The marathon actually started five years ago when NBC first announced O'Brien would eventually be taking over "Tonight." Earlier in the decade, after triumphant road stops in Toronto and Chicago where frenzied fans filled auditoriums, O'Brien and his team knew they were ready to take their act to the next level: 11:30 at night.

An unbroken, decade-long winning streak in the 12:35 a.m. time-slot also had everyone's attention. Anxious to keep the younger O'Brien from jumping to ABC or Fox, NBC made the deal to offer him Jay Leno's job.

As a consequence, as O'Brien put it this week, "I feel like a racehorse that was put in the chute five years ago."

What O'Brien didn't want to happen over that time was to over-think how he was going to approach "Tonight." A student of TV and a great fan of the "Tonight Show" hosts who went before him - Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Leno - O'Brien (who will be Leno's final guest Friday night) wanted to balance the traditional approach viewers expect to find at 11:30 with his own comedy style.

By the Harvard grad's own admission, that tends to run a little wild at times.

"I'm not a snob when it comes to comedy," he says, citing a Three Stooges short where a bear driving a car puts its paw out for a left turn as his idea of comedy gold.

"I can appreciate a Steve Martin prose piece in The New Yorker as well as when he went on stage and put an arrow through his head."

O'Brien says his show is at its best when it is at its silliest. The "Year 2000" bit - where he and whoever is guesting hold flashlights beneath their chins and make strange predictions - is one of his favourite sketches.

"It's basically just a good way to deliver jokes," he says, adding that, as a writer, it seemed like something he could have sold to Carson.

Although he expanded his monologue to include more jokes as he was winding down "Late Night," O'Brien says he won't attempt to duplicate Leno's nightly 35-40 joke barrage at the top of the show. While Leno was more into jokes, O'Brien - a big fan of the classic Canadian sketch show SCTV - is more into ideas.

So expect to see more sketches and signature characters (including Triumph the Insult Comic Dog) throughout the show, with O'Brien's old "Late Night" pal, Andy Richter, pitching in as announcer and comedy player. Back, too, will be Max Weinberg and the Max Weinberg 7, with O'Brien's familiar theme "brightened" for "Tonight."

O'Brien says that back when he was struggling to find his feet as a talk show host, he got a piece of advice from one of his heroes: Johnny Carson.

"He told me to just be myself, which is the best advice anyone can give you," he says.

As for moving out to the West Coast, O'Brien says he notices the difference when he's out riding his bike. In New York, he barely got noticed. In L.A., he gets followed by people with cameras, sometimes for long distances.

"Cars drive along with me and shoot me," he says, prompting him to ask, "isn't Johnny Depp on a unicycle somewhere?"


Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

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