LOS ANGELES (AP) – Conan O’Brien wants viewers to think of his “Tonight Show” debut Monday as the introductory course to a new late-night era.

“I’m not going to cure cancer on the first show, and I’m not going to jump Snake River Canyon. I’m not going to levitate. Sometimes people forget this is the first show of what I hope will be many, many, many shows,” O’Brien said.

Besides, he said, viewers accustomed to Jay Leno as host for 17 years, and those who watched Johnny Carson holding court for 30 years before that, need time to warm up to a new guy.

That would be the lanky fellowwho sports a red pompadour and intriguingly off-kilter comic sensibility.

“My hope is that people will watch the first night and say, “Hey, there was some fun stuff in there and he cleans up nice. I might try him tomorrow night,”‘ O’Brien said.

He’s far from unprepared. There was a five-year waiting period to claim ownership of “Tonight” after NBC announced the plum job would go to O’Brien, and he’s ready for his transition from the 12:30 a.m. “Late Show” to the 11:30 p.m. “Tonight.”

He was to play a different “Tonight” role on Friday, as Leno’s last guest.

O’Brien, a former TV writer (“The Simpsons,” “Saturday Night Live”), was a raw, largely untested performer when he started with “Late Night.” Sixteen years later, he knows how to work the room, including the big one represented by “Tonight.”

A test run was very encouraging, O’Brien said Thursday.

“We got an audience in and did a show start to finish, and it felt really good,” he said. “It was like we built a brand-new ocean liner and last night took it out on the bay, and it didn’t blow up. So that’s a good sign.

“We were done and I thought, “We can air that.’ It felt pretty good.”

Details of the show’s look, its rhythm and comedy fixtures will be unveiled next week, but there are clear indications that “Late Night” fans won’t be dismayed by an extreme O’Brien makeover.

As an NBC ad summed it up, “New time. Same hair.” The host’s own assessment is more thoughtful but not far afield of the snappy line.

The theater built for O’Brien on the Universal City studio lot is more “elegant” than his old Studio 6A quarters and, at 380 seats, nearly double the size, O’Brien said. But he’s the same comedian and host.

“Comedy is quirky, it’s hard, it’s very personal. Most of the best things I’ve done in my life, my comedy career, I just did them and I didn’t think about them too much. … I don’t sit around a lot and make diagrams of how I need to alter my personality for 11:30. In fact, I don’t think that’s really possible.”

He acknowledges there are small adjustments to be made as he shifts to “Tonight,” comparing it to walking into a party and taking the temperature of the room: How are people dressed? What’s the vibe?

“I’m coming from a kegger and I’m walking into a party where people are wearing sports jackets. I’m going to wait a few minutes before I start stuffing shrimp down my pants,” he quipped.

Every “Tonight” host, from the original, Steve Allen, to Jack Paar to Carson to Leno, made NBC’s valuable late-night franchise his own. But O’Brien knows he faces 21st-century challenges, with audience attention splintered by many choices.

“You accept that times are changing, but everyone’s graded on the time they live in. People are always trying to invent a video game where Muhammad Ali can fight Mike Tyson, but they’re completely different people at different times. I believe my job is to figure out what does the ‘Tonight Show’ mean in this new world we live in.”

He considers himself a fan of his most direct competitor, David Letterman, and sounds unconcerned about the head-to-head matchup with CBS’ “Late Show.”

“I don’t think I’m going to be taking viewers away from Dave. I think he’s going to have his people and I’m going to have to go out and get my people,” O’Brien said.

Recording one show and watching the other is the obvious solution, he suggests: “None of this fighting and squabbling.”

There hasn’t been any, in sharp contrast to the previous, messy “Tonight” turnover. First, Leno and Letterman played tug-of-war for the late-night prize. When Leno won, Carson proved chilly to his successor.

Although Leno balked a bit as his “Tonight” run neared its end, NBC came up with a novel prime-time show to keep him at the network and its plan intact.

Whether O’Brien turns into the long-distance “Tonight” runner that Carson proved to be – and whether he wants that – remains to be seen. As O’Brien puts it, “life happens to you.”

“I’ve always said to myself, “Just have the guts to stop when you’re not having fun anymore.’ … I’d love to think I could do this for a long time, but those are hard questions.”

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