A late night talk show is a marathon, not a sprint, and when someone begins a new show, or a newcomer takes over an old one, there’s a sense that you should wait a while before forming an opinion. Jimmy Fallon, for instance, was a disaster on his “Late Night” debut, and has by now carved out an entertaining little niche for himself.
With the first episode of “Conan,” Conan O’Brien’s new TBS talk show, snap judgments feel more fair. Conan’s been in the late night game for close to 20 years, knows what he wants to do and, after stumbling early in his “Tonight Show” stint in a futile attempt to get the Leno fans to like him, has rediscovered his rhythms. Though much of the material in the first episode of “Conan” was about his uncomfortable departure from NBC, the show itself felt not unlike an episode of “Late Night” or one of his later “Tonight Show” outings.
It was Conan at his most comfortable, going through the familiar rituals of a late night show (monologue, desk piece, interviews, musical performance), bantering with Andy Richter, etc. It was a Conan O’Brien talk show, and that in and of itself had to be satisfying for the many members of Team Coco who flocked to his final “Tonight” days, followed his Twitter feed, went to one of his live stage shows, etc.
But if it felt much like an episode of one of Conan’s old shows, the “Conan” debut also felt like a middle-of-the-pack example. Some funny bits, some other obligatory moments, and a good feeling to have the guy back, but nothing extraordinary like, say, his final week on “Tonight.”
Conan of course had to tell some NBC jokes, which he did early and often. The taped cold open about his unemployed time in the wilderness had some nice moments (you can see the whole thing below), like Conan being gunned down like Sonny Corleone on the causeway, or Conan begging Don Draper from “Mad Men” for a job. On the other hand, even though most of us can agree he got a raw deal at NBC, he needs to cool it with the jokes about how much less he’s making, given the economy and how much the public knows about his NBC severance, his ownership of the new show, etc.
The monologue was also heavy on the NBC material – my favorite was Conan observing that he left NBC because he wouldn’t go on at midnight, “So I get this job at eleven. Then, yesterday, Daylight Savings Time ended – so right now it”s basically midnight.” – but also had Conan trying to work in every major news event from his hiatus into a single punchline. (That was a case of Conan and his writers recognizing how far they needed to take the joke to get the laugh, as it wasn’t working at all until he paused after mentioning the BP oil spill and said, simply, “Brett Favre’s penis.”) And I will, of course, never object to an appearance by the Masturbating Bear, here inserted into a local newscast’s lottery drawing.
The highlight of the episode came post-monologue, as we got to see Andy back on the couch with Conan, bantering like the good old days, with Andy sneakily dropping all the best lines. (When they each tried on a Halloween mask of Conan that, for legal reasons, had been named “Ex Talk Show Host,” Andy sniffed and said, “Inside, it smells like tears.”) For much of their brief time on “Tonight,” Andy seemed reluctant to cross that divide from announcer back to traditional sidekick, but that’s one tradition where the two have always excelled, and it was a pleasure to see that familiar chemistry.
After that, we got a talk show, with the usual pre-researched questions for guests Seth Rogen (who was determined to push the limits of what he could say on TBS) and Lea Michele. The Rogen interview was the stronger of the two, if only for Conan’s giddy laughter when Rogen mentioned that he had first studied martial arts at the Vancouver Jewish Community Center, but neither was particularly memorable.
The most notable change from the old days came at the end, when Conan joined musical guest Jack White on-stage to duet on Eddie Cochran”s rockabilly classic “Twenty Flight Rock.” That was a reminder not only of Conan’s closing moments on “Tonight,” where he jammed on “Free Bird” with Beck, Billy Gibbons, Ben Harper and some other special guests, and of the “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” live tour, where Conan’s musical performances were a staple. His joy during those performances is infectious, and hopefully he’ll find opportunities from time to time to strap on the guitar during the show.
The other day, I wrote a column about how I was glad to have Conan back on TV, but hoped he might be willing to reinvent the wheel, since I’d lost any real interest in the traditional talk show format a long time ago. Conan clearly doesn’t want to do that, nor should he have to, but his TBS debut confirmed my feeling that I’m not likely to be a regular “Conan” viewer.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com