On his first show back Conan O'Brien seemed intent on usurping Seinfeld's position as the preeminent show about nothing. Where Leno lazily lapsed back into a deadeningly familiar rhythm O'Brien spent much of the show impishly goofing around, powered by nothing more than nervous energy and an overgrown class clown's irresistible urge to entertain.
There was something weirdly intimate about Late Night last night: without writers or scripted bits to fall back on the show's central comic conceit seemed to be Conan being Conan. That was enough for me. There didn't really even seem to be any jokes in his monologue; instead he expressed solidarity with his writers and riffed extensively on his strike beard, which made him look like his evil twin, his Mexican non-union equivalent Conando and, as he was quick to point out, Young Kris Kringle from Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.
Conan then filled time seeing how long he could spin his wedding ring (twice! Somebody's bucking for the Peabody this year!), showed audiences his office, staged a fight between a Conan O'Brien doll and an Abraham Lincoln figure ("If you pull a string he gets depressed and hates his crazy wife"), rifled through Christmas cards from Pee-Wee Herman and Cheap Trick and goofed around on electric guitar while co-workers played Rock Band. It was a fascinating exercise in comic minimalism, a scrappy, enterprising performer making something out of nothing much at all.
Then, alas, came the guests. I've never been much of a fan of talk show guests. Unless it's someone I'm really interested in the interview segments on Conan, Colbert, Letterman and The Daily Show are my generally my cue to go to the bathroom, dick around on the computer or switch channels. Last night's episode did nothing to change my mind. Bob Saget was sufficiently dull, a stand-up comedian named Dwayne Perkins was mildly amusing at best and a pair of rock dinosaurs paying homage to Elvis were perfectly "meh" to use one of my colleague Noel Murray's favorite words.
I'll keep on tuning into Conan but I'll also continue to stop watching after the monologue and the first comedy bit. And I sincerely hope the strike is resolved before Conan is reduced to picking out lint from his sweaters in a low-energy, low-wattage quest for laughs. Minimalism is all well and good but there's such a thing as taking it too far.
Grade: B Stray Observations –Conan has long threatened to spend an entire episode dancing to the band. Alas, it's not looking like such an empty threat these days. –"Sabotage" is really fucking hard to sing on Rock Band. It looks easy but oh fuck is it difficult.