In what ways has Conan O'Brien expanded upon or refined his familiar talk show formula to make his return to late-night television, TBS' Conan, a radical and refreshing departure from Late Night with Conan O'Brien? Well, none.
As for whether this is a good or a bad thing, the answer is not as simple. Despite his recent career resuscitation–though only time and his ratings will tell–the majestic rise, bitter defeat, martyrdom and slow, steady resurrection of Conan O'Brien will one day prove to be among the greatest tragedies in television's otherwise instantly forgettable history. We all know the story by now: the wizened king Jay Leno's seemingly gracious abdication of The Tonight Show throne; the ceremonious ascension of the beloved prince, Conan O'Brien: his coveted dream, coming to pass… then the cruel dashing on the rocks by Leno of that dream in a bloody, Richard III-like filicide and power grab. Confused, bearded, bitter and broken-hearted, the displaced comedian attempts to return to his forsaken principality only to find his former seat claimed by no less than Jimmy Fallon, master impressionist! His shot at redemption on basic cable finds the inimitable funny-man playing it safe: presenting what is essentially a retro-fitted Late Night.
And, superficially, there's nothing wrong with this decision: it always was and always will be a great show. But if we consider this choice less as an artistic statement than a marketing strategy, it may appear to be, in some respects, short-sighted. Of course, appearing on basic cable means playing to a smaller audience than the erstwhile staple of network programming may be used to, but it also means a potentially broader canvas–as befitting a much narrower audience–with regards to content: Conan is no longer restricted to themes and subject matter with which the lowest common denominator might be comfortable: he has graduated to the second lowest, basic cable, so he can get away with a lot more. And while it was well within his capabilities to play to his new audience's slightly naughtier sensibilities, Conan, ever the showman, decided to play it safe, even scolding his first guest Seth Rogen for using the word "titties."
Conan seems to have forgotten that, though he is, in his new 11 p.m. time slot, competing with the likes of Jay "my kingdom for a horse" Leno and David Letterman, he lacks the automatic advantage of appearing on network television and therefore cropping up on every television in every house in the country nearly against viewers' will! And it is this kind of "oh, is there nothing else on, well whatever" effect of inertia that compels so many viewers to tune into CBS or NBC of a weekday evening. It cannot be denied that CBS and NBC, being the first and second channels on the dial for every cable provider, are truly impactful upon ratings: people tune in out of laziness, just as they would have tuned in to Conan's abortive Tonight Show out of laziness. Now they have to actively seek him out and, while he has his supporters, I doubt if many people can tell you "which number" TBS is. So it behooves the humbled Conan to pull something new out of the bag, to reinvent himself as a basic cable-personality, not merely a disembodied network television ghost vainly seeking his redemption in an entirely different medium.
It's also a slightly inauspicious sign to hear Seth Rogen admit that his new film, The Green Hornet, has been pushed back to an undesirable January opening, a harbinger that Conan's first A-list guest may not be on the A-list for much longer. However, Conan and his writers seem to be sharper than ever, featuring, as one of the show's first new segments, which may or may not recur, a "rigged contest," this week's being a First Guest-contest, whose winner was a little old lady, playing on the cliché that the winners of such contests usually are little old ladies. And, thankfully, Conan has not lost the knack for surreal improvisational comedy that once made him a unique and vibrant voice in the hopelessly old-fashioned medium of the talk show. Musical director Max Weinberg, whose comedic antics were undoubtedly a high point of Late Night, will be sorely missed. On a similar note, I sincerely hope Conan will not make it a habit of whipping out the guitar for every episode, lest he turn into Jools Holland.
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