For the past three months I have missed Conan O’Brien like a phantom limb. Time and time again, I’ve caught myself thinking, “Hey, eleven thirty. Conan’s on!” only to realize that Jimmy Fallon now ruled the eleven-thirty CST slot on NBC.
So you can imagine how fucking geeked I was for Conan’s triumphant return. Yet questions remained. Would Hollywood change Conan? Would a change in latitude result in a change of attitude? Would a cushier time slot force Conan to tone down the weirdness? Would Conan conquer The Tonight Show or would The Tonight Show conquer him? Lastly, who is killing the great chefs of Europe?
Tonight’s debut episode of The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien (jeez, it still feels weird to write that, like “Governor Schwarzenegger”) shed precious little light on the mysterious deaths of Europe’s top chefs but it gave us an intriguing glimpse into what The Tonight Show will look like post-Conanification.
The premiere began with a retro NBC promo that paid reverent homage to the gloried history of The Tonight Show and its place in the pantheon of late night television. Then Conan diligently made his way through a checklist detailing everything he needed to do to prepare for his debut. He nailed the parts about building a set, writing jokes, getting dressed and brushing his teeth but neglected the bit about moving to L.A
Stuck in New York, Conan ran cross-country against the pulsating backdrop of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender”. Most comedy shows would treat this as a throwaway gag: show Conan in New York, then show fifteen seconds of montage of Conan running in front of various landmarks, then begin the show and the monologue quickly enough that the blue-hairs won’t get bored.
That isn’t how Conan rolls. So instead of leaping from New York to LA with a stop or two in between, The Tonight Show dedicated four minutes of historic, insanely valuable late-night real estate to Conan’s mad dash across America. Conan was throwing down the gauntlet. He was letting die-hards know that he was still going to take chances, that he was still going to test the attention spans of viewers and their tolerance for oddball conceptual humor.
At the same time Conan was smartly playing to Middle America. Nothing keeps the affiliates happy quite like showcasing their cities, or at least cities near their cities. So Conan ran onto the field at Wrigley Field, was chased around by security guards and later stopped to visit a Victorian Doll Museum (you gotta have priorities).
As a huge fan of Conan O’Brien, Cheap Trick, “Surrender” and shots of people running for comic and/or dramatic purposes I was a sucker for this bit. I was a lot less impressed with his new set, which looks a little like a spaceship designed by retirees.
What followed was comfort food for Late Night fans jonesing hardcore for Conesy and his vaguely obsessive-compulsive tics and mannerisms. There was the string dance, the theatrical leap in place, the aggressive pointing to Max Weinberg (it’s a measure of how poorly I deal with change that I was a little freaked out that they were billed as The Tonight Show band rather than the Max Weinberg Seven), the quip about the audience's cheers rapidly devolving into anger and sly digs at his employers. In this instance, Conan quipped he knew he’d made it because he was on a last place network, in a state that’s bankrupt and doing a show sponsored by General Motors.
Conan has always struck me as a compelling combination of Ivy League conceptual weirdo and comedy pragmatist. So after the odd extended opening there were jokes about The Clippers and Octomom followed by another bit that found Conan in his element, hijacking a tram on The Universal lot (where the show is being filmed) and playing the manic class clown.
When I interviewed Robert Smigel many years ago he said that when he was running Late Night early on he tried to wean Conan off the staples of late night comedy but quickly came to realize that those staples existed for a reason. Late night talk shows need structure and repetition so that weird stuff doesn’t completely throw audiences. Besides, Conan was really fucking good at remote bits. He loves goofing off with regular people. He has a near-pathological need to make people laugh.
The Universal Studios gave him obscenely fertile comic ground to plow. My favorite bit was when they passed the Bates Motel and Conan offered a tongue-in-cheek critique of Norman Bates technique (“It’s too hot for corduroy!” “Don’t commit murders in the daytime! That’s just bad planning”!) Then, in a stunt redolent of early Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman, Conan took the tram outside the studio and bought its passengers a bunch of random shit from the dollar store.
Tonight was long on bits and short on guests. Conan brought in the D from the Hollywood sign and proved he wasn’t going Hollywood by driving around in his 1992 Taurus (in a Tashlinesque gag the mere sight of his car was enough to make a woman eight months pregnant).
Though I love Conan I very rarely stick around for the interviews. Tonight’s first guest was Will Ferrell, who came out on a throne carried by scantily clad men and behaved like a tongue-in-cheek ambassador for Los Angeles. He was doing shtick and written material; he wasn’t Will Ferrell so much as “Will Ferrell” but I’d much rather have him telling Conan that Los Angelenos are legally allowed to borrow the guns of cops for one day than earnestly share anecdotes about fucking Land Of The Lost.
How fucking sad was that clip? When you can’t get a laugh by dousing yourself in urine then something is seriously wrong. Ferrell ended his shticky set by crooning “Never Can Say Goodbye” as a passive-aggressive way of preparing Conan for his imminent cancellation. At least he didn’t show another fucking clip. Then came musical guest Pearl Jam, who performed some of that newfangled rock and roll music the kids are into these days.
In his very first outing, Conan struck a nice balance between appeasing old fans like myself and courting new ones. It’s still a little weird to see a quintessential New York type like Conan in LA and Andy Richter wasn’t given much to do tonight but it feels damn good to have our Conan back.