LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Former "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien returned to television on Monday, more than nine months after he lost his coveted network job, and poked fun at his downsized gig on a cable channel.
His opening monologue, predictably, revolved around his unceremonious departure from the NBC role he had coveted for years and his arrival at TBS, whose lineup includes old sitcoms like "King of Queens" and "Everybody Loves Raymond."
"Welcome to my new show. It's called 'Conan,'" the bearded 47-year-old comic told the audience at a Burbank soundstage around the corner from his old employer. "People ask me why I named the show 'Conan.' I did it so I'd be harder to replace.
"This is an exciting night," he added. "I'm really glad to be on cable ... The truth is, ladies and gentleman, I have dreamed of being a talk show host on basic cable ever since I was 46.
"And things are already going very well. I am happy to report right now ... that we're already No. 1 in TBS's key demographic -- people who can't afford HBO."
O'Brien's seven-month tenure at "The Tonight Show" ended in January amid a botched programing overhaul at NBC, which had designated him Jay Leno's successor several years earlier.
Leno was given a variety show that aired weeknights at 10 p.m., but its low ratings angered network affiliates. The struggling network decided to restore Leno to his old 11:35 p.m. slot, and O'Brien refused an offer to follow him a half-hour later. He received a $45 million exit deal, and announced in April that he would launch a new show at TBS.
He spent the enforced break nursing his wounds, embarking on a national comedy tour, and basking in the outrage directed at NBC on his behalf by his fans.
The TBS show followed a traditional format: O'Brien delivered one-liners to a studio audience; repaired to his desk where he cracked wise with his long-time sidekick Andy Richter against a lunar backdrop; and then interviewed a pair of actors on the promotional trail, Seth Rogen and Lea Michele.
Somewhat unconventionally, he ended the show by strapping on a guitar and singing along with White Stripes frontman Jack White on a cover of Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock."
A running, pre-taped gag depicted O'Brien being machine-gunned -- "Godfather"-style -- by NBC hitmen.
Another bit showed him on the job-search trail. His first interview, with Don Draper of the 1960s advertising drama "Mad Men," goes badly when the executive tells him, "It's 1965 and you're two years old." Jobs at Burger King and as a children's party clown also go badly. Finally TBS offers him a contract that promises to pay him "MUCH LESS." O'Brien gladly signs on.
In reality, O'Brien is reportedly earning at least $10 million a year at TBS, comparable to what he was earning at NBC. Syndication and foreign sales will also boost his payday.
Critics said the show failed to break much new ground. Variety said "very little in the premiere could be called inspired."
USA Today warned O'Brien to drop the jokes about his joblessness. "He's made millions. He'll make millions. Stop crying on the national shoulder. Unlike many Americans, you've got a job. Get on with it," it said.
(Reporting by Dean Goodman; editing by Mohammad Zargham)