Hey guys, I'm back to sum up Conan's first week on the air, after his much-scrutinized debut. Some of the stuff I've seen on the internet this week about Conan has been just hilarious; there's the usual ranting that Andy Richter destroys all the comic flow by making Conan laugh off to the side (doesn't Paul Schaffer do, like, the exact same thing, except he's a million times more annoying?). Or maybe you heard that Conan should stop making jokes about NBC because it makes him sound pathetic. Or he should stop mocking his new station TBS because it makes him sound pathetic. My favorite was Jim Windolf in Vanity Fair dissecting the moon graphic on Conan's backdrop. "Everybody knows a crescent moon is funnier than a full moon. Round is not funny." I knew there was a reason you never see circular things in comedy!
In my opinion, if there's one thing that really doesn't stand up to intense scrutiny, it's a late night show. Conan comes on, he tells a few jokes about current events, he might throw to a remote or a YouTube video or something, then in the second segment he does an extended comedy bit, then he talks to two guests and has a musical act or a comedian. That's the whole show! And it's the same thing, every night! I excuse our country (and especially the media's) fascination with the politics and personalities behind late night because I share it, but I'm sure everyone at Conan can't wait for the pressure to lift a little.
Anyway, with the first week over, from what I can tell, Conan seems like a show I'd watch occasionally, definitely if I heard about funny clips on YouTube or the like, but I'm not sure I'd bother to sit down with it every night. He's slipped pretty comfortably into his usual comic persona, with all the advantages and flaws that brings. His monologue is semi-funny but unspectacular. He's fine with guests, but that's clearly not really his thing. His comedy bits are often killer, and his ad-libbed banter, especially with Andy, is really fun to watch. As I noted in my initial review, his energy seems high and that's making things like the interviews and the monologue more compelling. There are fewer and fewer gags about his sad situation and the villains of NBC every night.
TBS and basic cable in general are still-frequent targets though, and one skit in particular, where he talked to the network's standards and practices guy, was a really perfect example of Conan's sensibility—slightly weird, but not aggressively so; slightly dirty, but PG-13 at best; and infectiously enthusiastic. Other gags, like Will Forte's impression of a mad Ted Turner or tonight's appearance of such basic cable stars as Bruce Jenner and a mad hoarder lady, felt more obvious, but I don't see what's wrong with Conan mocking the network he's on. It's not like Jay Leno doesn't poke fun at NBC's financial troubles, while Jon Stewart frequently references Comedy Central's pot-addled, college-aged crowd, and if you appear on FOX, I think you basically have to mock Rupert Murdoch once in a while.
And Conan's choice of guests so far has been about as good as you can expect from a canned late-night interview. People like Jon Hamm (Mad Men ended its run last month), Tom Hanks (his next movie doesn't come out for almost a year), and Charlyne Yi (who hasn't been in a movie or on TV at all this year) felt like they were picked more because they know and banter well with O'Brien or because they hung out with him on his live tour. That they aren't working too hard to shill anything has made those interviews pop a little more. I don't know if that's a trend that's going to continue, but if it did, it'd certainly make the show stand out from its competitors.
So far, the ratings for the show seem to be on solid ground, in that it's handily beating Letterman and Leno when it comes to the demo (which is literally 95 percent of what networks care about when it comes to ratings) and the fall-off from episode to episode hasn't been that large. With the first week hoopla over, it's the next few months that will really be the proving ground for Conan. I'm gonna keep checking in on the show to see what kind of recurring comedy bits he'll incorporate, and how he'll tap into the online following he's built up in his months off the air. This is stuff he can really use, and I hope he does, because in his years on Late Night, Conan showed a real skill for cultivating those culty bits, and in the internet age that feels like a crucial thing to do.
So that's my advice to Conan: Keep cultivating the cult of personality—it's worked for guys like Stephen Colbert—and try and keep the monologue interesting with gags like the extended Kanye West interview tonight. There's no need to ignore what you've been good at for the last 17 years, but don't rest on your laurels either, dragging out the masturbating bear or the Walker, Texas Ranger lever whenever you need a big laugh. Most importantly, Conan should just keep having fun, because that's most of what makes the show watchable. He's a great guy to watch enjoying himself.
- I really enjoyed Julie Bowen's long, callous story about one of her twins putting the other in the dryer, especially her repeatedly calling the kid "Fatty," to Conan's horror.
- "A dryer is like an oven that MOVES!"
- The local news bit was kinda ordinary, but the riffing on Andy's bizarre green-screen T-shirt made up for it.
- That Jon Dore guy was pretty funny. Hopefully Conan will keep putting emerging comics on at least once a week, because really, the musical act doesn't need to be an all-the-time thing.