Halfway into the opening monologue of his stage show at Radio City Music Hall last night, Conan O’Brien stopped to address a woman in the front row, getting to her seat late with a drink from the bar. “That drink better have been worth it,” he mock-scolded, then asked her for a sip. “You can’t just walk into my show late, holding a drink in front of an Irishman and expect me not to notice,” he said. He asked what was in the drink. Vodka, the woman said. He took a big sip: “Oh, this is going to be ten times better than last night’s show!”
The woman never got her drink back. As O’Brien went through a self-deprecating monologue—about unemployment, his beard, his spindly pale legs (“Like two ivory Slim Jims with a dusting of paprika”)—he kept the drink as a prop, and as a drink, sipping and gesturing and riffing on what a bad idea it probably was to get drunk on stage while talking about losing The Tonight Show. “Why did you give me this drink?” he fake-slurred, sobbing. “I was so classy on 60 Minutes!”
Later in the show, another woman handed Conan a drink (wine this time, she said). And that pretty much represented the spirit of this stop on the Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour: members of Team Coco paid in the neighborhood of $100 to offer up tribute to the once-and-future late-night host, offering libations and free publicity via volunteer Tweets, co-ordinated by the O’Brien camp with a pre-determined hashtag (see above). O’Brien probably could have solicited shirts, wallets and kidneys from the crowd as well if he’d wanted.
What he gave back was, essentially, a live episode of a late-night show—a funny, well-executed episode, granted—with Conan as both host and main guest. He also brought out some guest stars (along with sidekick Andy Richter), including Pee-Wee Herman, John Krasinski and quarterback Eli Manning, as well as renamed versions of features from his NBC show, including the Masturbating Bear (now the Self-Pleasuring Panda) and the Walker, Texas Ranger lever (now the Chuck Norris Rural Policeman Handle).
A Videogum review of O’Brien’s first New York show suggested that the comic’s focus on losing the Tonight Show was starting to become a little much: “We are on your side, Conan, insofar as you are an incredibly talented comedian and performer who got a (sort of) raw deal, but your raw deal is still better than ALL OF OUR DEALS COMBINED, so maybe at a certain point, enough with the self-absorbed crying and more with the relatable jokes.” Which is true to the extent that pretty much no rich celebrity has any business complaining publicly about any setback in their careers. But O’Brien is not treating his ouster as a moving, seriocomic tale of personal tragedy; this is not exactly God Said, Ha! A large part of the show’s treatment of O’Brien’s unemployment is precisely that it is funny because, in the end, O’Brien is just a rich comic who lost a TV show. That spirit runs from the opening video (in which a fat, bush-bearded O’Brien answers the phone, “Hello? Job? Television job?”) to his riff on supporters walking up to him “when I’m at the ATM, or a sub shop—oh, look, I’m just trying to relate to people. I have no idea what real people do. I haven’t left my house in years!”
That said, some of the best material in Legally Prohibited had little or nothing to do with the Jaypocalypse. (Though I may be partially influenced because, at this point, I’ve seen so much of the material on YouTube or elsewhere already.) A taped bit with O’Brien playing a “generic network executive” was flat, while his riffing with Krasinski over the Norris Handle—which, he pointed out, was insultingly labeled with an arrow showing guest celebs which way to pull it—was hilarious. As on O’Brien’s late-night shows, as much or more comedy came from the asides and self-deflation as from the prepared bits themselves.
Was it worth it? I leave that judgment to those who are not professional critics and, thus, paid their own C-note. But the show did offer something that a TV show doesn’t (even if O’Brien had one now): the feeling of the vital charge that O’Brien got from being in front of an audience. It’s interesting to remember that this was the guy who seemed so awkward and tentative on a stage when he took over Late Night from David Letterman: here, he ripped with his band through some parody songs as well as The Stray Cats’ “Rock This Town” and The Band’s “The Weight” (on which drummer Max Weinberg made a guest appearance) as an encore, after which he ran through the crowd, into the balcony, then bounded back down to the stage using the ledges along Radio City’s art deco walls.
The big question for O’Brien, when he starts his TBS show in November, will be if he can retain the charge that connecting with Team Coco and playing the underdog seems to have given him. Will he play more music on his TBS show? Will he keep the beard? Either way, once he gets back on TV and (I hope) puts the NBC shtick behind him, he’ll do well to try to stay in touch with the outsider attitude that drove him when he had nothing but a Twitter account and a stage show (and a multimillion-dollar settlement). A glass of vodka probably wouldn’t hurt, either.