Last week, it was announced that TBS’ Conan — the late night basic-cable outpost hosted by one-time NBC fixture Conan O’Brien — would be excising live musical performances in 2019 as part of a pivot to a new half-hour format. The news was spun as yet another way that the new Conan will be “leaner” than its higher-profile network competitors. But for many of us who remember when O’Brien was host of NBC’s Late Night in the ’90s and ’00s, it was a little strange, and even kind of sad. For more than 15 years, O’Brien presided over one of the best and most exciting TV showcases for emerging artists and bands ever. And nothing has replaced it.
Originally founded by David Letterman in 1982, the Late Night franchise established itself early on as a backdoor portal for the outskirts of music culture to enter the mainstream. Late Night was where R.E.M. performed for a national audience for the first time, and Captain Beefheart appeared as a panel guest multiple times. This embrace of the fringes was borne partly out of necessity, as Johnny Carson expressly forbade Letterman’s people from booking guests that were pursued by The Tonight Show. But it quickly became a foundational aesthetic of Late Night — if you want to see things that are simply verboten elsewhere on television, tune in here.
This tradition continued under O’Brien’s watch. The first-ever musical guest upon O’Brien’s notoriously shaky debut in 1993 was Radiohead, at the height of “Creep”-mania, back when Thom Yorke tried to look like Kurt Cobain and dance like Morrissey. “I really like these guys!” O’Brien chirped, a nervous endorsement that conveyed how unusual it was to see a relatively unknown British band on network TV in the early ’90s.