Tuned In

Conan Returns: Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before

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So I don’t know if you’ve heard about it, but Conan O’Brien lost a job last January. No, I’m serious! But I understand if you’ve been busy, so the first episode of O’Brien’s new TBS talk show, Conan, helpfully filled you in. The opening video—very funny, and very much in the spirit of one he made for his live tour earlier this year—told an exaggerated version of his downfall, including a failed job interview with Jon Hamm as Don Draper. (“You have absolutely no advertising experience. Plus, it’s 1965. And you’re two years old.”)

Maybe the funniest gag in the video was Conan’s comically long machine-gunning by NBC goons, and it was a kind of metaphor. It does seem like Conan’s been getting fired for an awfully long time, and he devoted about the first half of his return show to a monologue, banter, bits and another video about his firing (as well as self-deprecating asides about being shunted to basic cable).

Not that there’s anything wrong with that! The Jaypocalypse invigorated and focused Conan’s comedy, and it would be silly to expect him to ignore the reason for his show’s being. (For one thing, the Team Coco contingent that, as he said, “saved [his] ass” must have expected it.) But that left the question of what Conan the show’s driving purpose was, what distinguishes it (if anything) from Conan’s Tonight and Conan’s Late Night—and the first installment left that question open.

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The first installment of Conan’s Tonight Show—with its hilarious and honestly exhilarating extended scene of Conan running from New York to L.A.—was exciting because of everything it promised. It was Conan making his act literally bigger, big as America, it was Conan—in his own words—taking the wheel of the “Ferrari” that was the Tonight Show and showing what he could do with it.

He only got seven months to prove that, and like that or loathe it, here he was starting again on TBS, with a show that felt more like a move back to the smaller scale, quirkiness and intimacy of his old 12:35 show. There was Andy Richter back in the chair next to him, a move that showed what a bad idea it was to maroon him behind Tonight’s podium. Sitting by the desk, Richter killed it, playing off Conan as the host brought out an “Ex Talk Show Host” Halloween mask of himself. (“Inside, it smells like tears!” Richter riffed.)

There was the Masturbating Bear, brought back in a screw-you-NBC clip in which he, um, produced numbers for a Lotto drawing. The set itself bespoke a certain amount of production money but also a smaller scale: the audience was up close, and the desk was backed by a picture of the California coast, with the moon wobbling charmingly against it.

The monologue too, as you’d expect, made up for lost time with a batch of NBC and firing jokes (Welcome to my second-annual first show!”). But Conan also played with the length of time he’d been off air with a single joke that crammed in a half-dozen comically dated topical references (“…comma, Brett Favre’s penis!”) After a break and banter came another taped bit, from Ricky Gervais, dealing with Conan’s troubles with that tone of comic condescension Gervais specializes in, as he welcomed him back to his new show on TBS—and then, just to get it out of the way, to his future gigs on the Food Network, Dayton, Ohio, morning TV and satellite radio.

And then it was off to the second half of the talk show which was, well, the second half of a talk show. Seth Rogen told a couple of basic-cable-risque stories about proposing and getting high; Lea Michele of Glee parried easy questions about her GQ photo shoot. If the first half of the show was distinguished by how much it focused on Conan’s last crazy year, the second half was distinguished by how little it did. Where an early guest on Conan’s Tonight Show, say, might have spent a lot of time talking about the exciting new adventure beginning, Rogen and Michele’s appearances could have well come from an imaginary 18th year of Conan’s Late Night.

The message, overall—insofar as you can take a message from one episode of a talk show, which you can’t—is that Conan the show is not so much about a reinvention of the talk show form as a restoration of Conan. He was doing something he wanted to do, a late-night talk show, and NBC made him stop doing it. Now he’s going to continue doing it again.

And, look, we’ve seen Conan the talk show host for almost twenty years, so we know what that’s going to be like and how he can pull it off. But if the burning question for the last several months has been: “What would Conan O’Brien do, if he had control and nearly complete freedom to do it?” then the answer looks like, apparently: the Tonight Show again.

Or, really, something seemingly closer to Late Night with Conan O’Brien—a looser, quirkier take on a late-night talk show, but still a late-night talk show: opening bit, monologue, desk bit, interview, interview, music, good night! Frankly, that may not be a bad thing. Conan’s Late Night was an excellent show that got better the longer he got comfortable with it. I wouldn’t blame fans of that show—and I was one—for just being happy to essentially see it back.

But what was exciting about Conan’s Tonight Show, even or especially during those times when he was struggling to get the balance of daring humor with a broad platform, was the notion that this comic artist was getting the chance to do something new, with a new set of tools. Conan didn’t need to reinvent the wheel (nor does he now): he was just showing us he had this new, awesome wheel, and he couldn’t wait to show us how fast it was.

I want to see that excitement on Conan—and to be fair, there were flashes of it. The opening began playfully with the line, “Last season on Conan…” and the episode had an absurd, non sequitur detective-show title: “Baa Baa Blackmail.” The “Rigged First Guest” contest, while not unlike something you’d see on Late Night, was also a sign that the show did not have Tonight’s national-institution burden: if Conan wants to make its first guest the curator of a nutcracker museum, then damn it, it will.

And while ending with a musical guest isn’t the most original notion for a late-night show, Conan strapped on an axe himself to tear up “Twenty Flight Rock” with Jack White. The performance recalled his live show, his sign-off to “Free Bird” with Will Ferrell and his writers’-strike shows, on which, among other things, he burned up the stage with a cover of “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” I hope we see more of it—though maybe Conan should lay off the guitar solos—because Conan is at his best when he throws himself into the act, and when, as in those earlier instances, he’s forced by circumstance to improvise and invent. (I’m also hoping for more pre-shot video, which has always been Conan’s great strength.)

It was in that beginning and in that ending—not the interview sandwich in between—where I saw the chance of Conan the performer doing something new with Conan the show. (Silly as it is, that’s why I was glad to see Conan keep the beard; not just because it looks good, but because it symbolizes Conan, the new man.) And I want to see that not because there was anything wrong with Late Night—there wasn’t—but because I suspect and hope that Conan learned things in that year as traveling folk hero that made him evolve as a performer. And because Late Night and Tonight are over.

Better to move us forward with him, in a show that is neither beholden to NBC’s notes nor to the implicit ones of Team Coco, and leave the past where it belongs: in your new show’s first monologue.