Change is fascinating — its origin, its application, the reaction it inspires, and above all else, its lasting impact.
Born from a want to shake things up and create something new, Conan re-introduced itself with a trimmed down 30-minute runtime, an intimate new set, and the absence of late-night staples like the desk, the suit, and the band on Tuesday night. These changes felt like the culmination of a lot of hard work and careful consideration. And, after a three-month hiatus, it was. But this is also the start of something that isn’t so easy to define yet.
For the first show back, with a blank canvas, Conan O’Brien and sidekick Andy Richter did the necessary work of introducing the new version of the show which felt not dissimilar from the old version outside of those more superficial changes. People expecting karaoke Twister or Andy to eat fire may have been disappointed. But Conan fans doubtlessly saw the appeal of what seemed like a longer and more relaxed interview with Tom Hanks and O’Brien and Richter’s easy banter. The question is, what will the show have in store for them tonight and the next night?
To fully get arms around the more fundamental changes at Conan, you have to let go of the premiere as the final word and the show as a solitary thing. On the business side of things, this leaner show is also cheaper. And that means money that went into a bigger production can, theoretically, go to the creation of bits that can have a double life on TV and online, propelled by TeamCoco’s massive YouTube and Twitter following. Or maybe it’s more travel episodes. O’Brien’s new podcast (Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend) and recent tour are examples of that spread. But despite the attention and a healthy marketing campaign around the show’s return, we’re all sort of in the dark as to what, exactly, this all looks like in a few months when everything is running full speed at the same time. And that’s sort of exciting.
I want to make the suggestion that the Conan team may also be in the process of still figuring out what kind of show they want to do as they go down this road. The idea that these things — which are so clearly informed by audience response and the result of repetition — should come out of the box whole after a couple of test shows is utterly ridiculous and ignorant of late night history. Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert made tweaks after getting started on their respective shows. So did Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Is O’Brien doing a monologue in a month? We’ll see if it fits with the evolving vision of the show? It’s a lot easier to shake up the formula when minimalism is your Northstar.
We’ve seen or are aware of the studs and the foundation that Conan is going to build on — casual interviews, cleverly conceived remotes, travel, web content — and they are sound. At this super early point, we’re forced to go on faith that it can live up to the promise of this more nimble operation and the ideals of a strategy that seems forward focused and smart. But it’s hard to not be a believer considering O’Brien’s track record of reinvention (on NBC, on TBS, and, most recently, through the broad relevancy that he’s established with fans on social media and YouTube), his intellectual curiosity and need to explore, and his want to challenge himself to keep finding ways to be funny.
Change may be fascinating, but standing still has the benefit of a kind of comfort that seduces so many people, both in television and in our larger culture. When you get someone who is eager to resist the pull of that, risk implosion, and follow their audience as opposed to demanding they stand still and rot with them, well, you gotta give them the space and the time to figure out what that change looks like. Conan O’Brien has earned that.