The headlines about Conan O’Brien getting ready to leave late night after almost 30 years (to go host a weekly variety show on HBO Max next summer) are technically true, but they also seem to herald some kind of big change while adhering to a linear idea of what a late night show is and where it has to happen. An idea that is slowly losing its form. In as much as indie films and music aren’t solely things made in a basement, late night comedy doesn’t have to be two guests, a performance, and a focus around the midnight hour. It’s an aesthetic. One that O’Brien has helped shape and one he’s still going to inform in his next spot. Perhaps with more ease than before. In short: I’m not sure how earth-shaking this news really is.
It should be noted that, damn, does Conan O’Brien know how to pivot. When Andy Richter left Late Night in 1999, the show dynamic changed somewhat. The show changed again, more fully, when O’Brien briefly took over The Tonight Show in 2009 and again when he went to TBS to start Conan after NBC’s fuckery. That show has changed as well, gradually over the years before a total remix in January 2019 when it went from an hour to a half-hour. And then it transformed again, like every other late night show, going virtual due to COVID before shooting crowdless episodes at Largo in LA. Depending on how things go with social distancing and public health, the show may well change again before its now concrete end date in June.
O’Brien and company’s demonstrated adaptability isn’t just a virtue, it’s a necessity on par with comedic instinct in the effort to keep making people laugh while maintaining relevancy across generations. This all while confronting the ultimate TV existential threat: the explosion of available outlets and the splintering of audience. Because for everyone a niche offering and a niche offering for everyone. O’Brien has embraced this reality and the need to reach fans in multiple spaces already, creating a network of podcasts that allows friends of the show, fixtures, and O’Brien himself to focus on specific interests and giving love to Late Night old heads with the Classic Conan archive on his Team Coco site. Additionally, there’s a series of comedy specials he’s producing for HBO Max that keep him and the Team Coco brand connected to the world of stand-up. The TBS show has its own segmented niche offerings as well, with Clueless Gamer and Without Borders (which will continue with stand-alone specials on TBS) feeling like shows within the larger show. Money people call this diversification. It makes you less vulnerable in a volatile industry. Even in entertainment.
David Letterman is another uncommonly durable comedy culture figure. He and O’Brien will be forever linked since they both hosted Late Night on NBC (Letterman from 1982 to 1993 with O’Brien following him and then taking the reigns until 2009) and preferred a kind of “let’s see what we can get away with” esotericism that managed to find bigger than anticipated audiences and impact. But I’m wondering if their respective third acts also joins them.
When Letterman left The Late Show in 2015 it was assumed that he’d sit in a rocking chair for 20 years, but instead he went to Netflix and isolated and elevated the element from his late night show that he seemingly liked best (interviews). And now he gets to do it without the guardrails and expectations of a network nightly “late night” show even though it still feels like late night for who it is and what it is. For Letterman, this “do whatever you want, just do it for us” treatment seems like a reward for a foundational run in classically defined late night. Is this new show on HBO Max Conan O’Brien’s version of that? Maybe. We’ll see if he has the freedom or inclination to make big changes or hone in on a single aspect, but O’Brien certainly has the name recognition and loyal multi-platform audience to be a separator for a freshly launched streamer when it comes to buzz and maybe subscriptions. And he’s still got a lot of pathways to entertain his audience (the previously mentioned Team Coco, those specials, the podcasts, Without Borders at a time when the world will be ripe for re-exploration and a little cultural curiosity, etc). This on top of whatever this new show winds up being. So the stage is set for him to take advantage of this.
You know what else this feels like? When Howard Stern left terrestrial radio for Sirius. It’s a further breakdown of an established formula and subscription fees suck, sure, but in the end, no one will really give a shit about what channel or service the content is on if it’s still good. That’s the challenge, same as it ever was. So long as O’Brien has the ability to follow his instincts and do his thing then does it really matter if it’s all on channel 39 or on a couple of different apps? Conan ala carte is still Conan and it’s still going to be late night.