The Return of Conan

If you haven’t been paying attention to this blog for the last 11 months, then you may not have realized that I was looking forward to last night’s premiere of Conan on TBS. I haven’t even minded all the commercials and the endless promotion during the baseball playoffs.

The main reason for the excitement wasn’t just that a great comedian was returning to television, but that the return represented a chance to finally move on. Conan O’Brien has been active since he lost The Tonight Show to Jay Leno in January: He got a new job, he went on a live tour, he grew a beard, he appeared on 60 Minutes, and he even got on Twitter. What has been frustrating, though, is that the most common subject in his comedy during this interregnum has been Conan himself—namely his departure from NBC and his new job on TBS.

Back in January, when The Tonight Show essentially became about its own future, it was refreshing to see an unleashed Conan mercilessly go after his own bosses at NBC. Unlike Jay Leno, who played dumb during the whole process, Conan wasn’t afraid to be honest and hilariously vicious. Unlike Jimmy Kimmel, who had nothing to lose by being vicious, and David Letterman, who played the role of elder statesman throughout, Conan’s attacks were also endearingly honest and personal, since he was going through the ordeal himself and had something to lose by attacking his employer.

As time has passed, though, the jokes about getting fired and moving to basic cable have gotten less and less fresh, even starting to seem a little bit desperate. After all, the lucrative deal Conan got when he left NBC was widely publicized, and he landed his new job almost immediately. He emerged from the process as a comedy hero, while Leno is now struggling to beat Letterman. It’s hard to still view Conan as the victim here, so for him to persist with jokes as if he were one became a bit unseemly. It was also not very funny.

The new show, though, should usher in a new era. Of course, the premiere was full of references to The Tonight Show—the entire opening segment was structured as a “Last season on Conan flashback that included a slightly tweaked version of the events. Of course, this was to be expected, and some of it was quite funny, such as Conan’s job interview with Don Draper (“You have no advertising experience…. Plus it’s 1965, and you’re two years old!”) and him telling bad monologue jokes to a kid’s party dressed as a clown. Some of it veered too close to self-pity, such as TBS’ financial offer of “Much Less,” but overall it was a fitting way to introduce the new show as a fresh start (not to mention the fact that it was better than his opening sketch for The Tonight Show, where he ran across the country).

Once the show started, it picked up more or less where The Tonight Show ended, with a monologue (complete with the string dance) full of jokes about Conan getting fired (“People have asked me why I named the show Conan. Well, I did it so I would be harder to replace.”). TV critic Alan Sepinwall lamented the fact that Conan wasn’t planning on using his new show as a chance to alter the format of late-night, perhaps de-emphasizing things like the monologue and guest interviews, which haven’t always played to Conan’s strengths. The problem is that Conan clearly sees himself as a more traditional host than he really is. His new set, which is eerily similar to his Tonight Show set, demonstrated just how much Conan is trying to recapture—not revolutionize—his old show. When his first guest, Seth Rogen, used the word “shit” three times and told a story that involved his topless girlfriend, Conan seemed a little unsettled that his show was off to a slightly vulgar start, as if he were worried what the Midwestern affiliates would think. After the third S bomb, Andy Richter* helpfully interrupted to “explain” that, “We only get to say it three times! And we don’t know what Lea Michele is going to say!”

*Richter was actually the highlight of the first episode. His jokes were funny, he seemed more relaxed and natural than Conan, and he was integrated much better than he had been on The Tonight Show.

But Conan needs to realize that Conan is not the The Tonight Show on TBS. He needs to realize that the reason his fans watched his shows in droves last January wasn’t just that he was in the news or that he was the victim of NBC’s buffoonery—it was that for a few weeks Conan’s show became about himself and, therefore, about his own comic voice. He wasn’t worried about plugging his guests’ movies or appealing to new demographics; he was only worried about making jokes about his situation. In other words, what was funny wasn’t just what was going on, but how Conan was responding to what was going on. So Conan needs to stop making jokes about what happened when he was on NBC and start making jokes as funny as the ones he made on NBC.

It’s important to remember that, as I said back in January when a few people were rushing to pronounce Conan’s Tonight Show a failure after seven months, late-night shows are a marathon, not a sprint. Like any show, Conan will take time to establish its own unique tone and structure, and it’s going to have to be one that doesn’t rely on jokes about getting fired by NBC. Hopefully, though, Conan will realize it has an asset no other show has…Conan.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Shawn on November 10, 2010 at 10:50 AM

    No doubt, Conan ought to go with his own comedic voice in the future. Let’s give him a chance though, huh? He had to address the NBC episode as if no one had really been paying attention since then. As you may know, not everyone is a pop culture fanatic and may not realize Conan has been out there on tour with Jack White, putting out an album and Tweeting and such. All that stuff was to shore up the base, but now we the fans have to give him room to reach others. Without them the show simply will not make it over the long term..


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