Hosting the awards show Sunday, he landed a one-two-three comedic punch even before the first trophy was dispensed.
First, a filmed opener found O'Brien, aloft in a jetliner en route to Los Angeles for the show, crash-landing on the mysterious island where "Lost" unfolds. His odyssey to make it to the Emmycast took him through "The Office," after which he disrupted a rescue attempt on "24." Then he arrived in the hospital of cranky Dr. House, who responded to Conan's plea, "Can you help me?" with a withering diagnosis of his physical deficiencies. In animated form, he popped up on "South Park" (where he found Tom Cruise, umm, "in the closet"), then got busted as a suspected pedophile on a "Dateline NBC" investigation.
Next, having made it to the stage of the Shrine Auditorium alive, Conan, live, killed with his monologue. NBC's ratings woes, of course, figured into his mischief, as when he noted that since the Emmycast was being aired by NBC, "halfway through the show, (it) will be canceled."
As if that weren't enough, O'Brien slid smoothly into a third act: a full-blown song-and-dance number adapting "Trouble" from the Broadway musical "The Music Man" with his network in mind: "We got trouble, right here at NBC, with a capital T and that rhymes with G, as in 'Gee, we're screwed!' "
And the Emmycast was only 15 minutes old!
The program wasn't all about Conan, of course.
Dick Clark, the 76-year-old "oldest living teenager," was saluted as a TV pioneer and a show-biz original. In that familiar voice slurred somewhat by his 2004 stroke, he offered a gracious thanks, then introduced Barry Manilow, who sang the by-now-classic "American Bandstand" theme.
Another segment paid tribute to Aaron Spelling, recognized as TV's most prolific and longest-reigning mogul, who died in June at 83. Despite his more serious-minded projects, Spelling's legacy was ideally summed up by Stephen Collins (star of Spelling's series "7th Heaven"): He "made TV that simply tasted good."
Even the three original "Charlie's Angels" — Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith — put aside old squabbles to stand together on-stage and recall him fondly (if verbosely).
But enough with the sentiment. Thanks to Conan and a spirited crew of presenters, the evening never lost its fun, often silly, energy.
Alongside Helen Mirren, fellow presenter (and fellow Brit) Hugh Laurie spoke in an unintelligible mock-French.
Later, alongside his fellow fake-news star Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert stayed true to his righteous, moralistic on-air persona as they presented the Emmy in the reality-competition category.
"Good evening, godless sodomites," Colbert greeted the Hollywood crowd. Reality TV, he added sternly, "warps the minds of our children and weakens the resolve of our allies."
And just to toy with the obligatory mention of the Ernst & Young accounting team, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was brought out as its fourth (presumably not-for-real) member.
A great running gag: In an effort to keep the Emmycast moving along, Conan introduced "beloved TV icon Bob Newhart," who, locked in an airtight capsule with exactly three hours of air, was meant to serve as an incentive for winners not to dawdle with their acceptance remarks.
If the broadcast ran long, warned Conan, "Bob Newhart dies." Hearing this from inside his sealed compartment, Newhart wore a priceless look of deadpan panic.
Through the night, Conan made references to the show running long. Cut to Newhart, looking steadily more concerned.
But the tactic (or something) clearly worked. Not only was this show that honors TV actually good TV, but it also moved along at a brisk clip, ending comfortably three hours after it began — and just moments after Newhart was sprung to present the best comedy Emmy beside Conan.
Good thing for Bob Newhart. Great thing for viewers.
By Frazier Moore