Conan O’Brien taped the first in a weeklong series of episodes in New York yesterday and it totally brought me back.
I have a long, affectionate television relationship with Conan—in fact, it might have outlived all of my other television relationships (unless you count old Cosby Show reruns). I started watching the gawky redheaded host in middle school and I’ve never stopped. I grew up in Chicago and when I was old enough to stay up on New Year’s Eve but too young to go out and party, Conan’s annual “Central Time Zone New Year’s Countdown” sketch on Late Night kept me company.
My parents never liked him. They thought he was too silly and they did not understand why anyone would find a Rottweiler puppet shouting “for me to poop on!” funny. They preferred Jay Leno, the melba toast of late night. When Conan became host of the Tonight Show in 2009, I actually called them to gloat. Ha ha, I laughed, their generation was old and had to move to an earlier time slot before they fell asleep while my generation finally had its chance to dominate American culture—for a few decades at least, until we became the middling status quo and were eventually superseded by Late Night With Justin Bieber And His Pile of Kittens, which, let’s face it, is where we’re all heading.
(LIST: TIME’s Top 10 Conan moments)
But then Leno took back the Tonight Show and Conan quit NBC, went on a nationwide comedy tour, and moved to TBS where his new show was promptly trounced in the ratings by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and everyone else in the late night world, even Chelsea Handler. What happened? Had everyone abandoned Conan in favor of Comedy Central’s titans of political satire? Was he just not cool anymore? Who the hell watches Chelsea Handler?
Judging from last night, I think the answer to Conan’s popularity problem might not be one he can easily solve. His audience is still overwhelmingly young—most people who showed up to see him at New York’s Beacon Theater were in their 20s — or at least they looked that way under their very bizarre Halloween costumes — and some of them had been camping out for the free tickets since 5 a.m. When Conan walked on stage the crowd gave him a standing ovation that lasted so long he had to remind them that he had a limited time to film the show. He is still incredibly popular—it’s just that he works in a traditional format and appeals to a demographic with a fractured cultural attention span. Even I abandon him in favor of Stewart and Colbert from time to time.
Last night’s show served as a kind of homecoming for Conan, who had filmed Late Night in New York City for 16 years before moving to Los Angeles in 2009 to helm the Tonight Show. Because of that, most of his skits and interviews revolved around topics related to the city he used to call home. Mayor Bloomberg showed up to give him a “New York City citizenship test”; he staged a fighting match between (a person dressed up as) the Empire State Building and (another person dressed up as) LA’s Scientology bookstore; he talked to Fallon about how his old Late Night show was doing; and he even aired a pre-taped video sketch in which he tried to become a Chinese restaurant deliveryman in the city. (At one point in the video, Conan delivers food to a woman who clearly doesn’t recognize him. “She refused to take the food, she refused to speak to me, and then someone else spilled coffee on me,” he says. “Welcome back to New York.”)
It was a great show and thanks to Fallon’s impeccable Charlie Sheen impression and a hilarious rendition of “The Boys Are Back in Town” by comedian Reggie Watts, one that felt more like a variety show than a formulaic monologue-sketch-interview talk show. Actually, there’s one thing Conan could do to freshen his act: ditch the monologue. It’s always been his weak spot and these days the entire concept just feels dated. He should replace it with more video sketches like the Chinese food one. Conan, if you’re reading this, I’m a big fan of moo shu pork.