Monday, January 10, 2011

Conan's back! A review of the first two months

Conan O'Brien is back on the air tonight after a two-week holiday. Hooray! Two weeks seemed like a long time, and of course that goddamned workaholic Leno was back at work on January 3rd, which means Conan's 18-49 number will be even lower than the 0.4 he got the week after Christmas. They need to keep "Team Coco" interested and watching every night at 11, and not just checking out the clips on the website, so hopefully Conan and his peeps used the break partly to review the first two months, tweak some stuff, and figure out how they're going to stay afloat on TBS.

Still emotionally scarred by his swift dethroning at the Tonight Show, I DVR'ed all of the first 28 episodes of Conan and have burned them on DVDs. Why? Because I'm paranoid that tragedy will strike again, and I deeply regret not at least having his first few weeks of Tonight Shows on DVD, knowing full well that NBC will spend the next millenium pretending they never happened. But now Conan is coming back for his second batch of new shows, and I wonder, "Am I really going to keep archiving this show?" I don't think so, but I still have them set to stay on my DVR "until I erase."

Anyhoo, with Coco already nearly halfway into his first show of 2011 (it's 11:20 pm as I write this), I wanted to briefly look back and think about what's working, what isn't, and what the future holds for my favorite deposed Tonight Show host. Way back on November 8th, 2010, Conan returned from the wilderness, and this is what I wrote the next day:

Back in January [2010], my "advice" to Conan was to take any offer from NBC that would allow him to go back on the air IMMEDIATELY, and then start the show in an empty warehouse, with a single camera, a desk from Staples, and two folding chairs -- the idea being that the show would be built around him and people would tune in to see how it grew from night to night. Despite opting for a completed set and professional crew, I think last night's debut had that kind of vibe: We're doing something like the old Late Night show, but in a new place with new people. There's no pressure on us, so we're going to have fun and see where this goes.

As for Conan himself, he was buzzing with nervous energy -- even more than usual. I'm sure with 10 months of pent-up hosting in him, he was eager to just get the first show over with so he can settle down and do what he does best. He was definitely jittery, lurching into the audience one too many times, searching for the right quips at the desk, but I thought he was fine. He's Conan -- if you like the guy you know what he's going to be. The cold opening was brilliant -- hilarious but also veering close to pathos, lest we forget that Conan is a real person who was deeply wounded by what happened earlier this year. It's interesting that both his Late Night debut and this one opened with taped segments that had Conan contemplating suicide -- I never realized Conan had such a "dark" side until I started reading the new Bill Carter book. We all know what he did on Late Night; now, back in a similar setting on TBS, with a similar budget and low expectations, I'm sure he'll grow this into a solid, fun, surprising show.

By his third show of the first week, I was already feeling much better, writing on 11/11:

The guests were perfect, and should be the "template" for his new show: a pretty big star who gets Conan's sense of humor and plays off him well; a quirkier, more oddball guest who Conan can just sit back and let roam wild; and a current, borderline-fringe musical guest who bring their fans to the party. Conan seems more comfortable, and with Andy back on the couch where he belongs it's almost like he's the "first guest" every night, which is fine by me. Actually, now that I think about it, and as I'm reading the Carter book, bringing Andy back to the "Ed" spot may be Conan's most lasting homage to Johnny; he always resisted making Andy into his "McMahon" because at the time it seemed corny and cliche, but now he's the only host left with a sidekick and it's retro-cool.

By November 11th, I had seen enough to have a grasp on how his show was doing:

Also, Conan's now-nightly hug with an audience member is a sign of him doing something else he resisted doing on Tonight (much to NBC's annoyance) -- interacting with the audience more. Bill Carter's War For Late Night book has been a real eye-opener about how early the seeds of discontent with Conan were planted in some corners of the Peacock network. Ironically, now that he's lost the only job he ever really wanted, Conan seems more willing to do some of the things that might have helped him KEEP that job [I was referring to the Chevy Cruze giveaway and on-air hawking]. We'll see HOW willing he is the next time some celebrity scandal erupts. (He refused to book Sarah Palin in the wake of her dust-up with Letterman over his monologue jokes. It was probably the moment when Jeff Zucker started thinking of him as a problem and not the solution.)

All in all, Conan is settling into his new show nicely, if slowly. He's clearly not looking to re-revolutionize the format -- if anything, he seems determined to be the last traditional late night talk show standing. He's been funny, the guests have been good, and nothing has flopped (IMO). But I'm waiting for some truly inspired bit of zaniness to become the Next Great Conan Bit -- and he needs more than one. He gets points for not trying to rehash the past, but he doesn't have anything yet to replace his SAT metaphors, state quarters, "If They Mated", Twitter Tracker or the good old desk drives in the country. The "Local News Wrap Up" was funny, but it's no "In The Year 2000."

Most importantly, perhaps, Conan seems to have moved beyond the NBC fiasco, as I was sure he would. People were already moaning after the FIRST EPISODE -- including, amazingly, some professional TV critics -- that the NBC jokes were "tired" and "over-done"; how this could be true after one episode is beyond me. He scarcely mentions it anymore, although his core audience probably wouldn't mind if he hammered away at it every day. (A passing reference to "my sojourn in the wilderness" drew a sympathetic "Awww" from the crowd last night.) He needs to find a way to make this new show his own, and not just The Tonight Show In Exile. I'm just glad to have the guy back on TV every night, so I'm willing to watch the evolution one show at a time.

So here we are, two months later. Late night is a marathon, not a sprint, so of course it's silly to judge a talk show on an obsessive night-by-night basis. Twenty-eight shows is just a drop in the bucket, hopefully a tiny fraction of the sheer tonnage of comedy Conan will deliver on TBS. When you consider that his Late Night stint got off to an incredibly rocky start in 1993 -- he was working on 13-week renewals for awhile -- he has stabilized his TBS show very quickly. He's become a better, more attentive, less jittery interviewer, and his monologue segment has become an early highlight. The warmth of his connection with the crowds, who show up in costume with props and signs to show their love, is genuinely moving in the insincere world of late night chat -- it would be almost a satire of Jay Leno's phony glad-handing at the opening of his show if it weren't so real and heart-felt.

Indeed, Conan has wisely held onto probably his greatest asset -- his fans, and their mutual affection for each other. He regularly shows off stuff his fans have sent him, and fan art has been turned into merchandise and his between-commercial title cards. I hope he continues to interact with the in-studio audience; it gives every show a slight devil-may-care, anything-could-happen vibe right off the top -- something only Craig Ferguson is pulling off in his monologue these days. And I hope Conan continues to pantomime the punchlines of his jokes -- I know he's always done this to some extent, but he seems to be doing it ALL THE TIME now, but it just keeps getting funnier. His Justin Bieber impression is as hilarious as it is simple.

The comedy bits are getting there. It's rough having to toss aside classic routines like the desk drive, "In The Year 2000/3000" and his stable of zany characters (Pimpbot 5000 being the most sorely missed, personally) and start completely fresh. It's not unlike Paul McCartney refusing to write a "Beatle-sounding" song for the first several years after the breakup -- Conan is re-creating a schtick that took 17 years to hone to silly perfection. I love his "video blog" segments -- he's only done two, but they are awesome and should be recurring. Andy's fake-newsman bit is as funny as it is low-rent, and that should also be a weekly event. The taped bits outside the studio have been very good, but I'd like to see Conan interacting more with "reg'ler folk" and not just TBS employees and people on the Warner lot. Just the other day I caught the bit from Tonight where he went yard-sale hopping with Slash, and it was classic.

He's getting there, but as with any start-up talk show, the key word is "patience." I love the opening theme and the graphics over the credits, which you have to watch every night for slight gags (a la The Simpsons), I love the set, I love the interaction with Andy, and they've had some great musical guests and funny comedians. It's a loose vibe, exemplified by the truly bizzare acid-trip Christmas decorations he sported for the final two weeks of 2010. And just as the year was winding down, we got a glimpse of possibly the first CLASSIC bit from the Conan show: Minty, the Candy Cane Who Fell On The Ground. With his old-timey theme song (which Conan was obsessed with), and the gross-but-somehow-adorable costume, Minty was the first breakout star of Conan's new show. As they get their legs underneath themselves, I'm sure there will be more where Minty came from.

And now it is 11:58 pm, and I need to go get me some Conan! Welcome back, Coco!

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