It feels almost inherently unfair to make a judgment about a late-night comedy show based on the first episode. If anything's been proven by years of history in this medium, it's that you can't really judge a whole series by one episode, especially not the first episode. These things take time. The hosts settle into grooves, the writers find their rhythms, the networks stop breathing down everyone's neck. Look at Jimmy Fallon, or Craig Ferguson, or hey, that other guy, what's-his-name, Conan O'Brien. Plucked from obscurity, it took him months, maybe years, to really start getting attention when hosting Late Night. Finally promoted to The Tonight Show in 2009, a lot of fans said they only really started to appreciate him after he was fired by NBC and really got to cut loose. So please, take my review of his new late-night event Conan with a nice grain of salt.
I watched the show tonight having just finished New York Times reporter Bill Carter's new book on the whole Tonight Show mess, The War for Late Night, wherein Conan comes across as the ultimate class act, a gentleman almost to the point of naïveté who's the last to know about NBC's machinations and slips into a brutal funk once the walls start coming down. With that image in my head, it was great to see the guy have fun and cut loose a little on his new show, which felt very much like a blend of his work on Late Night and The Tonight Show except finally free of any big bullshit from bosses or affiliates, any Jeff Zuckers or Dick Ebersols or who have you.
I'm sure O'Brien is going to get some flak for basically sticking to his old format (monologue; desk; couch; two guests; a musical act; Andy Richter), instead of really playing around with the late night format now that he's fully in control of his show. And it's true; although it was noticeably funny and very high-energy, this basically could have been any old late night show. But I think looking to Conan O'Brien to come up with something drastically new is misguided. Although he'd always been that much edgier and looser than his longtime lead-in Jay Leno, we're still talking about a guy who grew up on Johnny Carson and David Letterman and who's been hosting late-night TV for 17 years. The necessary tweaks were made—the set is more intimate and looks less busy, and Seth Rogen can bust out words like "titty" without getting in trouble—but it feels like what Conan wants to do is host a really great late night show in the classic format, and that's what he gets to do here.
The opening montage, which of course had to deal with the Tonight Show fallout, did it well by inflating the drama to absurd heights, with Conan gunned down, Sonny Corleone-style, in front of the NBC lot, then trying to get a job at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce ("It's 1965, you're 2 years old," Jon Hamm chides him. "You're very good-looking," Conan responds). I liked the fake gunfire and the stunt guest appearance but really laughed out loud at a befuddled Conan presenting seven plastic knives and forks to a customer asking for sweet-and-sour sauce at a Burger King; that's the kind of goofy, self-effacing humor he does so well.
His monologue, which was frequently dissected as Conan's weakest element during his years at NBC, was extremely charming, spraying the requisite number of Tonight Show lines ("Welcome to my second annual first show!") but really hitting the mark when Conan riffed with Andy about getting an "oww! machine" or bounded around the stage to hug audience members. I remember his monologues feeling staid and forced on Late Night and the Tonight Show, and maybe that'll come back with the typical topical jokes all the late-night shows have to try and hammer out daily, but O'Brien definitely felt very loose and conversational, and it was lovely to see.
Once he was behind the desk, things settled down into standard mode. He and Andy donning "ex-talk show host" masks was funny (they looked like they belonged in an Aphex Twin video), as was Ricky Gervais' video message, but after that we got to the business of guests and it was the same as it ever was. Conan got some nice patter from Rogen and Lea Michele. He's always been perfectly fine at the guest stuff, but it's really not why his fans are watching, I'm sure. Aside from a quick appearance by the Masturbating Bear, there was no sign of any of his recurring bits or any new ones, but I'm sure that's all on the way. An early issue this show is going to face is phasing out the jokes about the Tonight Show fracas; they'll get press attention for a while, and it's not like they can ignore it, but the show will have to come into its own quickly and distinguish itself enough that I'd want to keep watching it rather than, say, Jon Stewart or whoever.
Really, that's the only major issue I see on the horizon for Conan. I'm not suggesting he's at risk of getting canceled (TBS should be satisfied with just about any ratings number) or even of losing his cult cachet and millions of Twitter fans, but in the end, Conan does feel like just another late night show, and TV is littered with the damn things. When interviewing Lea Michele, there was some weird noise offstage, which Conan dismissed as the vagaries of basic cable: "Someone rented out a space right there!" That got a big laugh, of which Conan derisively quipped, "Oh, he's making the best of it!" Even he knows those sympathy laughs aren't going to carry him forever. But for the majority of the show, he looked so damn happy to be back on TV telling jokes (and singing, and playing guitar—he kicked ass at that part) that I'm cautiously optimistic for his future. That's the kind of infectious energy you just don't see from Leno (who's basically fossilized at this point) or Letterman (who's so caustic it hurts my eyes) or even Jon Stewart (whose bursts of intensity are usually outweighed by epic drollness). I didn't even get that kind of energy from O'Brien on The Tonight Show. It took him getting fired—but we knew that already.
I'm gonna check in again with Conan on Thursday, after it's completed a week of shows, just to run down how it's doing. See y'all then!
- "Last season, on Conan…"
- One of the standout lines in the monologue was Conan admitting that because of daylight savings, "right now, it's basically midnight," invalidating his whole reasoning for leaving NBC. "We got the summer off," Andy shrugs.
- Conan's Halloween mask looks like an "Asian Val Kilmer," says Andy.
- I felt like Ricky Gervais' tape should have ended with Conan back on NBC, except now it's a fringe channel with even less pull than The Food Network.
- The swift appearance and disappearance of the nutcracker lady struck the right balance between acknowledging Conan's "Team Coco" internet fandom and not letting it dominate the show for everyone who didn't pay attention to all the tweets and videos.
- In both the opening video and on the cover of Jack White's album, Conan looks almost terrifyingly stark and drawn; there seems to be a little more meat on his bones now. Good to see.