Conan O’Brien, the reboot
Conan O’Brien has taken over The Tonight Show, and, my, what a beautiful set they’ve built him.
Conan O’Brien is something of an acquired taste. I remember how bad Late Night with Conan O’Brien first was in 1993 when it premiered. It just seemed flat-out amateurish. But Conan got a lot better, and gradually I became a fan. For a while, from probably 1999 to 2004, I watched Conan almost religiously. I gradually gave that up as I had less time and became a regular of The Daily Show (and later The Colbert Report).
In more recent years, I’d watch from time to time. I took a look, out of curiosity in January 2008, to see what he’d do during the writers strike. I remember how he grew that beard and made a nightly game out of spinning his wedding ring on his desk. The highlight was when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and Conan engaged in a hilarious mock battle over who made Huckabee.
And when Conan had his last week of Late Night back in February, I settled back in to watch. It was like rejoining an old routine.
Now Conan has moved on to The Tonight Show. Much discussed has been whether his brand of humor would go over in the earlier timeslot. What seems to be overlooked in that discussion is that people like me, who were in high school when Conan started, are now approaching their mid-30s today. Wouldn’t it makes sense that a lot of that audience might simply, naturally follow along to an earlier timeslot?
I’ve been watching since the premiere and I’m glad to see that The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien is essentially just his old show moved into the earlier timeslot. Old bits like “The Year
2000 3000″ and “Celebrity Survey” have been carried forward. No word yet on Triumph the Insult Comic Dog or the Masturbating Bear (although the latter was supposedly retired — with a question mark — in Conan’s final week on Late Night). The first week of Conan was amusing, though not always hilarious. Hitting Tom Hanks with an asteroid was slapstick genius. His first interview, with Will Ferrell, was something of a disappointment. (Like with Stephen Colbert, all Will Ferrell interviews have become Will Ferrell playing “Will Ferrell.” But unlike Colbert it just feels forced and staged.) Conan has always been hit-and-miss; why should that change with him being an hour earlier?
Leno turned out episodes of The Tonight Show like a workmanlike machine — efficient, professional, solid. Sometimes even funny. But also almost painfully safe. Conan offers a slightly more quirky comedy twist, and for that I’m thankful. There’s something about Conan that makes you want to root for the guy. He’s an oddball. His humor comes from a less safe place than Leno.
Will it work for NBC in the ratings? Well, probably not. Word is, on Tuesday, Day Seven, Letterman surpassed The Tonight Show in the ratings, something he has never done for an extended period since the early years of the Letterman/Leno late-night wars.
But ratings be damned. Our boy has reached the Promised Land. Am I the only Conan fan who couldn’t help but grin happily, seeing that opening sketch of Show One — with Conan running from New York to Los Angeles — as a sort of victory lap?