Is it possible to be on Team Coco without being particularly excited about Coco’s new show?
Tomorrow at 11, Conan O’Brien concludes his long, strange journey of the past year-plus, from his old “Late Night” job, to his abbreviated tenure as host of “The Tonight Show,” to unemployed (but spectacularly-compensated) cult hero, to stints onstage and online, to his new “Conan” talk show on TBS.
As someone who believes Conan was thoroughly hosed by NBC’s mismanagement, and by Jay Leno’s refusal to keep his word and step aside when he said he would, I’m glad that he’s about to be back on TV. And as I wrote back in the spring, I’m glad that he chose to avoid the headaches that would have come with taking his act to FOX and instead chose the unconventional route of basic cable, where he won’t have to worry about pleasing affiliates, or shifts up and down by a tenth of a ratings point.
But as the debut of “Conan” approaches, I’m not sure how much I actually want to see it.
No one knows exactly what the new show will look like. The online “Show Zero” preview last week turned out to be a joke (and a funny one), with Conan, Andy Richter and company racing through an entire show in less than five minutes, with only one monologue joke, one band member and barely a few words from guest Jim Parsons. But we know the TV show will have a house band (with Jimmy Vivino taking over as bandleader from Max Weinberg), and we know there will be guests (Seth Rogen, Lea Michele and Jack White tomorrow, and Tom Hanks, Jon Hamm and Michael Cera later in the week)
Host? Check. Announcer/sidekick? Check. Band? Check. Guests? Check. There may or may not be a desk, or some other familiar trappings, but what little we know about “Conan” suggests it’s going to be a fairly traditional talk show.
And that format seems a waste of Conan.
The two signature elements of the traditional late night talk show – the monologue and the guest interviews – have never been Conan’s strengths. He livens up the former with the button dance and a few other flourishes, and he can be fun in the latter if he’s working with a professional talk show guest like Hanks or Will Ferrell (who opened and closed Conan’s “Tonight” stint but is out of the country for the debut week on TBS), but mostly he just gets through those pieces of the show because it’s always been expected of him.
The best parts of his shows – both in the vintage “Late Night” years, and in his incredible final weeks on “Tonight” – have come either from the pre-scripted and/or pre-taped comedy bits, or from Conan just letting his silly personality take over. I have no interest in seeing him go through the motions on the other stuff, and I worry that after the adrenaline of the first few weeks on TBS wears off, that’s exactly what we’ll get.
I was heartened to read, in the middle of a wide-ranging interview with Vulture’s Joe Adalian, Conan saying that he wanted to use those final NBC shows as inspiration, and that, “I really do think that at this point, after everything I”ve been through in the past ten months, my instinct is to be probably bolder and looser, and just go for it.”
But a lot of what made those closing “Tonight” episodes work can’t be recreated on a long-term basis, at least not as a standard talk show. For a few weeks, the show became entirely about Conan and his travails. Every interview was dominated by it, every monologue built to him taking shots at NBC and/or Jay, Conan was charged up by the enthusiasm the crowd had for their underdog hero, etc.
Conan’s comic sensibility has always been the greatest strength of his shows, and I’d like to think that he’ll be able to spend more time on pure comedy on TBS – that he can accept that in the era of “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” Adult Swim and even Jimmy Fallon (who’s done a great job at incorporating his guests into comedy bits), the world doesn’t need another show that follows the “monologue, desk segment, taped bit, interview, interview, band” rhythms.
But I also don’t know how much freedom he’ll have – TBS has a lot of money and pride riding on this arrangement, and may not want something too unconventional – nor how much he actually wants to reinvent this particular wheel.
Conan stayed with NBC for years after he should have because he was obsessed with the idea of “The Tonight Show,” long after the brand had ceased to matter to anyone but people inside the talk show business itself. That he chose TBS over FOX suggests that Conan’s not entirely married to an old way of thinking, where the format made sense because there were fewer networks, fewer opportunities to see comedy and to hear your favorite celebrities talk, etc. (Even the obsessive coverage of Conan over the past year has been as much about what late night talk shows used to mean as their actual value today.)
By calling his new show simply “Conan,” maybe he’s saying that it will be even more stamped with his personality than “Late Night” or his “Tonight Show” were. Maybe it will be the reward for all the people who cheered him on in those final weeks at NBC, who subscribed to his Twitter feed, went to his live stage show as it crossed the country, who have watched all the backstage videos that TeamCoco.com has been posting the last few weeks.
I hope so. Because if “Conan” is just another Conan O’Brien-fronted talk show without all the NBC baggage, then I’m glad it exists but can’t see myself watching all that often.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org