Ten months after the Jaypocalypse, a beard, a stage tour and much drama later, Conan debuts on TBS. For all the hype around the show, and the news around how the show came to be, what we’re actually going to see on air has remained a fairly tightly held secret. I don’t have answers. But here are some questions:
* Where did Conan’s fans go, and will they return? It’s worth remembering that late-night is not a zero-sum game; every person who watches Conan need not come at the expense of another show. Late-night audiences are relatively small, and there are a lot of potential viewers who may not have been watching any late-night shows. That said, there were a few million people watching Conan on The Tonight Show when he went off the air. I don’t think anyone expects him to pull in that kind of number on TBS, but those people had to develop other habits in the meantime: Did they start watching another talk show? Adult Swim? Xbox?
* Will the beard be back, and if so, how long will it stay? I’ve been of the opinion that Conan simply needs to keep the beard now, for the time being. For starters, it looks good on him. But it’s also a symbol, not just of his history post-Tonight Show, or his renegade image—he also sported a beard in support of his writers during the writers’ strike a few years back—but a statement that this is not just Tonight Show 2.0.
* Will Conan be different from a typical late-night show? Can it be? On the one hand, put on a cable station and given (apparently) carte blanche to run his show exactly as he envisions it, Conan can do as he likes. But he’s not an unknown entity, after all: he’s been in the late-night business for nearly two decades. It will be interesting to see if Conan the show is, or can be, something very stylistically different, or if it needs to be.
* Is Conan-with-a-job as interesting as unemployed Conan? The way Conan handled his post-Tonight Show period was textbook rebranding; he embraced his outsider status and became (to his fans, new and old, anyway) a kind of folk hero, to the extent that a millionaire getting paid handsomely not to work can be. Now he’ll need to pull off a second rebranding challenge: maintaining that same excitement and interest now that he’s just one of many guys with a late-night show. (And part of that will mean letting the past go. We may see some NBC jokes the first night, but I think most people, and Conan himself, want to see him take the high road and move on at this point.)
* Can TBS manage expectations? I’ve already been seeing “Can Conan beat Jay?” stories, but it’s worth remembering that he doesn’t directly compete against Jay Leno or David Letterman. He starts a half-hour earlier; his second half-hour goes against their first, and first half-hours of late-night talk shows are invariably higher-rated. Of course, Jon Stewart doesn’t compete against Jay and Dave either, but it still got attention when The Daily Show beat them in the key demographic last month. The other comparison will be how Conan does in comparison with Comedy Central. His one advantage in this whole expectations game: I’m not sure anybody knows quite what to expect.
* Blah, blah, blah—what we really want to know is: Will the Masturbating Bear be back? Conan is supposedly not supposed to carry over bits he developed at NBC, but he’s indicated that he may just use his material and dare them to sue; in the past, of course, Letterman brought over his own NBC routines to CBS by barely repackaging them. How many of Conan’s favorite bits come to TBS—and whether he even bothers renaming them—will make an interesting drinking game.