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Television

history repeating

In Conan’s footsteps, hearing footsteps

Mel Brooks visits Conan O’Brien on his TBS show.

Meghan Sinclair/Team Coco

Mel Brooks visits Conan O’Brien on his TBS show.

It was a funny bit, spoofing the high anxiety of taking over a late-night television institution. Apparently unaffected, the rookie host cheerfully greeted well-wishers on the streets of New York.

“A lot of pressure,” they warned him ominously, one after the other. “You better be as good as Letterman!”

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Whistling blithely, the newcomer strolled into his dressing room, powdered his nose . . . and prepared himself a noose.

That was how an unknown Conan O’Brien introduced himself to the world when he assumed the mantel of the “Late Night” franchise a little more than 20 years ago.

Now, with Conan twice removed from “Late Night” after his ill-fated run on “The Tonight Show,” Seth Meyers is the latest writer-comedian to take a seat behind the “Late Night” desk. Meyers, of course, has taken over the franchise from fellow “Saturday Night Live” alum Jimmy Fallon, who has been weighed down by Olympic-size expectations himself since he graduated to “The Tonight Show.”

Fallon and Meyers, like O’Brien before them, have been prematurely rushed to judgment. ‘What’s the verdict?’ demanded the headlines the morning after Meyers delivered his first monologue.

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Both, like O’Brien before them in this long-running game of talk show musical chairs, have been prematurely rushed to judgment. “What’s the verdict?” demanded the headlines the morning after Meyers delivered his first monologue and welcomed his first guests, Amy Poehler and Vice President Joe Biden. First impressions concluded that Meyers was “subdued,” “old-school” . . . in a word, meh.

Compared with O’Brien’s debut, however, that was positively rhapsodic. O’Brien, tapped by Lorne Michaels after stints behind the scenes with “The Simpsons” and “SNL,” was instantly pilloried for his nervous energy and his apparent discomfort in front of the camera. A month after he debuted, one well-known TV critic suggested he “resume his previous identity, Conan O’Blivion.”

With Jimmy Fallon” in January, before Fallon moved to the “Tonight Show” and  Meyers took over “Late Night.”

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

With Jimmy Fallon” in January, before Fallon moved to the “Tonight Show” and Meyers took over “Late Night.”

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In hindsight, however, O’Brien’s hosting persona was almost fully formed from the get-go; it just took some getting used to. On the day of his premiere, The New York Times ran a comic piece of self-deprecation written by the host himself. “O’Brien Flops!” the headline shouted.

My future wife and I were living in New Orleans and then Chicago during those bumpy first months of O’Brien’s “Late Night” tenure. We had a 13-inch black and white TV we bought at a yard sale, on which we watched classic movies my film-buff father recorded on VHS tapes and mailed each month from Massachusetts. Besides the movies, we watched Conan, the overwhelmed, wisecracking Bostonian, after our restaurant shifts.

Yes, he was twitchy, drawing excessive, sardonic attention to the late-night tropes he’d inherited. (When O’Brien explained the “small town newspaper items” segment on his debut, sidekick Andy Richter deadpanned, “Wow, that is a really innovative, groundbreaking idea.”) Undoubtedly, the host’s stilted interviewing skills left plenty to be desired. (They still do.)

But O’Brien’s comedy breakthrough was to present himself as precisely what his critics thought he was: the wrong man for the job. Two decades later, having passed through “The Tonight Show” on his way to his current incarnation on TBS, he’s still playing off the idea that having his own show is some kind of absurd mistake. It’s what makes him Conan, and it has installed him, through all the late-night convulsions, as a beloved TV personality.

Like O’Brien, Meyers and Fallon were handpicked by Michaels, the “SNL” creator who has dominated the business of comedy in recent decades the way Andrew Carnegie once presided over steel. Like O’Brien, they deserve ample opportunity to settle into their new roles.

Yes, there’s exponentially more pressure on Meyers. He better be as good as Conan. Or Fallon. Or, better yet, the best of Seth Meyers.

E-mail James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.

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