One of the unexpected high points of the summer TV season was Craig Ferguson's week in Paris, an inventive, hang-loose affair that gave viewers the chance to tune in during the middle of the night and see the host stroll through the city in bright sunshine, visit the Shakespeare & Company Bookstore, dine with Jean Reno, and compliment Kristen Bell on her beret. I wasn't expecting Conan O'Brien's return to New York to transcend the form like that, but I was hoping that he might see it as an occasion to tap into a rawer energy field than they seem to have in Los Angeles and reclaim his comedy mojo. It's not as if Conan—I've never met the man, but it is very, very hard to call him "O'Brien"—has exactly covered himself in glory since leaving the late-late-night slot at NBC. But the mood in the Beacon Theatre was that of a victory tour, with a "hometown boy makes good!" vibe. During the opening monologue of the final show, Conan kept reiterating that he didn't want to leave, and I don't blame him, but I like to think he's smart enough to know, deep down, that if he'd tried to extend his visit, it would have been like Hank Kingsley guest-hosting a second night in a row.
In the tradition of conventionally boring talk shows past, the audience expressed its approval of what was going on not by laughing at jokes but by applauding place names. Both the Lincoln Tunnel and Ozone Park, Queens earned themselves lusty rounds of applause. People in the audience cheered when Conan implied that they were stoned, though that may not be an unusual occurrence at the Beacon. When Will Forte made an uncredited guest appearance as a senile Ted Turner, screaming at the unpleasant top of his lungs while astride his stuffed buffalo on wheels, he boasted that the buffalo had once safely landed an airliner in the Hudson, and a couple of people actually booed at this, as if they felt that Sully himself had been disrespected by an in-character, second-rate Saturday Night Live veteran's trying to give the credit to his prop. When the best of Conan's guests, Louis C. K., mentioned that he would be performing in Pittsburgh, some people cheered that, and Louis—who I actually did meet once, but I couldn't very well call him "C. K." even if I hadn't—muttered, "It's not a good place." When this observation stirred up some dissension, Louis turned to the people in the audience and reasonably pointed out, "They're here, too! They're not in Pittsburgh. They hate it as much as I do."
There was a strong element of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" in the whole Team Coco movement. The idea that people who'd lost their jobs and were their retirement funds were strongly relating to a rich celebrity who was being golden parachuted out of a job he'd been promised before he'd had the chance to prove himself was always kind of silly, but Jay Leno, the formerly funny sell-out who'd turned The Tonight Show brand into a toxic asset and then reneged on his supposedly ironclad promise to finally go the hell away, made such a hissable villain that it was easy to get caught up in the moment. Conan's late-night show was smarter and funnier than the show that had preceded it all those years, and even when it didn't work, it had the potential to surprise you. (James Poniewozik once likened it to "a comedy lab.") Except for Louis C. K. and the mini-event of a same-sex wedding officiated by Conan himself, the week in New York felt winsome and nostalgic, an excuse to check in with old friends who didn't come to judge, and didn't care to perpetuate their city's image as a tough town. It was especially sad to see some of the products of the comedy lab pulled out of mothballs and milked for their old timers' appeal. You will pleased to learn that the Masturbating Bear is doing fine and living in Westchester County.
That said, one of the livelier bits was the return of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and his report from the barricades where the Occupy Wall Street crowd had set up camp. At the very least, it was nice to see something halfway topical that hadn't been filched from Leno's reject pile. (Conan's monologue jokes mined the unexplored comic possibilities of such topics as Chris Christie's weight and the romantic problems of Kim Kardasian, Justin Bieber, and Herman Cain. I know it's not supposed to be The Daily Show, but still, dude—for this your parents sent you to Harvard?) The protesters ("Like you've never had to deal with pepper spray! That's how every one of your dates ends.") and the capitalist swine ("I'm not here to poop on you. That's what you pay your Russian hookers to do.") alike seemed overjoyed to have the chance to be called losers and rapists by Triumph. It was nice to see them so happy, though the OWS people had better realize that being featured in a Triumph the Insult Comic Dog skit will not count as a step forward in their efforts to get the mainstream media to stop talking about them as if they're an acid flashback to 1999.
Sadly, there were plenty more pre-taped, on-location bits, and they starred not Triumph but the man whose name is in the title. I remember watching the beginning of Conan's premiere Tonight Show episode and thinking that, after this, he'd be up for more such bits the same day Manson gets paroled, but huge chunks of the New York shows were eaten up by the ugly suckers. Because David Letterman established a quarter of a century ago that it's always hilarious to interact with providers of New York street food and others in the service industry, Conan took a stab at delivering Chinese food and serving pizza. To a dismaying degree, the Chinese food adventure consisted of people recognizing Conan and showering him with love, just like the easy-to-please folks in the studio audience. (The real punch line to this came during Louis C. K.'s interview four days later, when Louis, who wrote for Conan's late-night show in its early days, recalled how everyone in the writing room thought Conan was such a shmuck because of how excited he got whenever a stranger in the park recognized him and said, "I like your show.")
When Conan is unfunny out in the real world, it's much more grueling than when he's unfunny in the studio, because the natural lighting is so much less kind. He makes a lot of jokes about his bleached pallor, but he's also started to look grizzled, as if he'd spent a month living in a shack in Arizona with no running water, in preparation for his upcoming role as the guy who gets killed off first in a Peckinpah Western. And seeing him with people like Louis C. K. and Hugh Jackman, and even that naughty little giggle-puss Jimmy Fallon, only serves to remind you that, as a comedy writer turned overnight TV star, he isn't really a performer; he lacks the seasoning that comes from years of public struggle, and is likely to either fold in himself or fall back on trying to be adorable when the going gets tough. The funniest moment on the street came when Conan was driving a pedicab and met a woman who told him that he'd spoken at her college graduation a couple of years ago. "This is what I'm doing now," he said. Then he peddled her away towards her destination, yelling defiantly at the building he passed, "I'm huge in Finland!"
I'm not sure how firmly embedded it is in the collective memory, but when David Letterman left NBC, he'd been doing Late Night on autopilot for years, and seemed cranky and tapped out and openly contemptuous of the audience, himself, everything. Being passed over in favor of the hacky Leno clearly made him feel that he had something to prove, and that feeling re-energized him. When he moved to the earlier time slot at a different network, he dropped a lot of baggage, and delivered a show that didn't feel like a weak blueprint of his old frat-house favorite. I suspect that Conan was still happy where he was when Leno quit, and that serving as the genial ringmaster to a bunch of zanies—a real comedy writers' show—suited his talents just fine. But if he wasn't as ready as leave the witching hour as Letterman had been, he was definitely angry about the way he was expected to scurry back once Big Jay decided he wanted his front office back.
But where David Letterman had always wanted the chance to show that he could do his version of what Johnny Carson used to do, Conan may not have had that kind of ambition, and he definitely doesn't have as clear a notion of what an early-late-night talk show should be. For a while, Conan didn't seem to be anything but baggage: when he showed up again at TBS, he immediately turned off a lot of people with his inability to stop making bitter, supposedly self-deprecating jokes about having been fired as the host of The Tonight Show. It didn't help that, months after he'd been given the chance to create his own show on his own terms, being bitter about having been fired as the host of The Tonight Show seemed to be the only clear identity that Conan had left. Conan has had it pounded into his head that he can't be quite what he used to be when his show airs earlier than it used to, and that's what he is now: not quite Conan. Maybe the ego-stroking he received from his old fans in the Big Apple will do him some good, and he can start enjoying his job again and confidently restocking the fun house. But more likely, he'll remain stuck in his current rut: Conan O'Brien is the Non-Masturbating Bear.