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Image: Conan O'Brien
Conan O'Brien poked fun at himself for putting his staff through the madness of the past year during the premiere of his new show, "Conan," on Monday.
TODAY contributor
updated 11/9/2010 9:33:41 AM ET 2010-11-09T14:33:41

I should preface this with a confession: I love Conan O'Brien. Outside of my family and closest friends, there's no one I've spent more time with in my life. Throughout most of high school, and at great expense to my studies, I stayed up late solely for my time with Conan. So, it goes without saying that I was on Conan's side during the NBC debacle and was eagerly awaiting his return. As such, I was predisposed to liking his new show, “Conan.”

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Guess what? I thoroughly enjoyed the premiere. Big shocker.

In the face of massive expectations and a tremendous, multi-faceted marketing campaign by TBS, Conan came out Monday night facing huge expectations. How different would “Conan” be from “The Tonight Show” or even “Late Night?” How would he address his break-up with NBC? How would the set look? Would we see the Masturbating Bear?

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Clicker: Watch the best bits from 'Conan' premiere

Conan, in theory, was going to be in front of a large audience, an audience consisting not only of long-time fans but also those viewers who tuned in during the last weeks of his “Tonight Show” and enjoyed the way Conan handled his dismissal from NBC. That soap opera months ago endeared Conan to a previously untapped viewership. In the break between his shows, Conan managed to stay visible, first through a nationwide tour, then with an unparalleled online presence and the recent TBS ad campaign. Monday night, in essence, was an audition for this new audience.

Story: Conan O'Brien returns to late-night TV with ease

Unfortunately, I have no idea how these relatively new (and potentially fickle) Conanites will have responded to Monday's “Conan” premiere. I can only tell you that Conan was the Conan I know and love. The premiere didn't aim terribly high, and it felt like an episode of “Late Night” more so than “The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien.” I think that's a good thing. The world feels right again.

Video: Bill Carter on Conan O'Brien's return (on this page)

Opening with a taped segment dramatizing Conan's exit from NBC and his subsequent search for a job, the premiere began on an appropriately goofy note, addressing the Leno situation lightly and without bitterness. Whatever edginess and conflict inherent to those contentious final days as “The Tonight Show” host hasn't seeped into “Conan.” Everything is now peachy in Conan land. This became abundantly clear during the monologue when he poked fun at himself for putting his staff through the madness of the past year simply because he refused to move back a half hour.

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As opposed to, say, his segment on “60 Minutes” a few months back, Conan appears to have gotten over taking himself and his travails at NBC seriously. The premiere of “Conan” was a loose, light affair. It wasn't overly scripted, and though you could sense some minor nerves in his even more-ebullient-than-normal behavior early in the show, Conan was at ease on his new stage.

The set itself feels similar to his old “Late Night” set. It's cozy and intimate, featuring a beautiful ocean backdrop and an over-large remote-controlled moon that Conan utilized to full potential in the premiere. The question of whether Conan would tempt the NBC legal fates by bringing back his old characters was answered almost immediately when the Masturbating Bear showed up to help draw some winning Mega Million numbers.

Video: How Conan opened his show (on this page)

In what can be considered the only lowlight of the premiere, the typically hilarious Ricky Gervais sent in a taped segment that poked fun at Conan's short “Tonight Show” tenure. The jokes were obvious but amiable, and if Ricky Gervais is the low point of your show, you're doing something right. The moment Seth Rogen sat down on the couch, it struck me that my expectations for the premiere were likely outsized. After all, it's still just an episode of a talk show. Not to say that the interviews were bad. Seth Rogen was funny, albeit a tad manic, and “Glee's” Lea Michele was all prepared cutesy anecdotes, but there's a ceiling to most celebrity interviews. Any thought that Conan would try and reinvent the talk show wheel was refuted immediately.

Story: What did you think of Conan's big debut?

It was an odd feeling. I couldn't have reasonably expected anything different than what “Conan” brought Monday night. Yet, with all of the hullabaloo surrounding the premiere, there was an underlying thought that Conan and his team would attempt the extraordinary. It's to their credit, however, that they didn't overstep their bounds. The entire post-monologue segment was spent simply, with Conan and sidekick Andy Richter messing around, bantering, two old friends trying to make each other laugh. It was pure and genuine, the kind of thing that can't be synthesized.

Newsweek: Why Conan O'Brien is the new king of late night

If you ever wanted to see Conan's appeal perfectly distilled, his end-of-show performance with Jack White is all you need. Definitively outmatched by White, a musical virtuoso, O'Brien earnestly held his ground. He was slightly uncomfortable (who wouldn't be?) and it showed. There's an authenticity to Conan that's omnipresent. Playing guitar on stage, trying to impress a man he idolizes, we see who Conan is, the same person he's always been: just a guy who wants people to like him.

In the end, it's nearly useless to make any judgments based on one show. We don't know what the future holds in the uncertain late night landscape. In a few months, when the audience has solidified and “Conan” settles into a groove, we may have a better handle on the show's future. For now, though, it just feels great to see Coco back on television. The drama of his exit from “The Tonight Show” can now be cast aside for good. The channel doesn't matter. The name of the show doesn't matter.

My old friend is back, and I get to see him every night.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Bill Carter on Conan O'Brien's return

  1. Closed captioning of: Bill Carter on Conan O'Brien's return

    >> welcome to my new show. it's called " conan ." people asked me why i named the show " conan ." i did it so i'd be harder to replace. the truth, i have dreamed of being a talk show host on basic cable ever since i was 46. things are already going very well. i am happy to report right now, i just got this news, we are already number 1 in tbs's key demographic, people who can't afford hbo.

    >> welcome back to " morning joe ." that was a clip from the premier of " conan ," last night. on t bs.

    >>> joining us, the author of the new book, "the war for late night ," when leno went early and television went crazy. thanks for being on. take it away.

    >> these books seem to keep writing themselves.

    >> this would be one of those.

    >> we all remember your first extraordinary book about the war between letterman and leno on nbc . we've been commenting about koman's bitterness over the past several months. we're saying, you have $40 million, put a smile on your face. but you write about how he would lie in bed depressed wondering what the hell happened. go into that a little bit, how much this affected him personally.

    >> he put so much into the idea of being the host of "the tonight show ," and when it didn't work and he was removed from it. he was actually shocked by that, surprising because the momentum was moving that way, it really devastated him. when i talked to him soon after this happened, he was really emotionally devastated by it for quite a while. i think, you know, he had to sort of slowly come around to the idea he had to move on. listen, the money -- everybody knows he made a huge amount of money. these guys make a huge amount of money all the time. it really didn't change his life, that money. what changed his life was he didn't succeed in the thing he really dreamed about.

    >> what we've heard for several months is a story of an obstinate conan , who was told from the beginning from people like dick ebersol , i think it was in the times, said, remember, you have to change your act. carson always said you win this thing in the central time zone , conan . change your act. he heard that from a lot of people. he refused to do it. he wouldn't even book guests that would have driven his ratings up. why?

    >> i think he had to be true to himself. you have to think about the kind of performer you are, can't change your style so much. i think he did try to adjust and i think he was off his game a little bit because of that on ""the tonight show "." i think he was committed to being the guy his base, young audience would like and trying to adjust. "the tonight show ," remember johnny was a vegas performer and jay was. and conan was not a vegas performer and couldn't fit in that niche. the biggest was sarah palin , when sarah palin was in her big fight with letterman, they wanted conan to book her. he didn't want to do that. i don't want to have her on just to rip my competition. he thought his audience would react negatively to that. it might not have been the right decision but the right decision for him.

    >> you take this inside the back room as nbc suggests to conan , we will move you to 12:05 , put leno at 11:35 . he has a decision to make, do i take the 12:05 spot or remarkable comment by his executive producer or do we blow this blanker up. they decided to blow this blanker up.

    >> it was first proposed, first reaction was, what does jay have on you guys? you can see the bitterness was in there coming out. he kind of thought, should i try this on, maybe think about doing this? his wife was kind of like against it. that sort of tipped him and he decided to write that manifesto and said why he wouldn't do it. he composes it in his house, one night of all night writing it and comes back the next day and sitting with his agents and lawyers and everybody lawyering it up, one lawyer says, you're speaking from your heart, let's do it. the executive producer, a very experienced guy, do we really want to do this? if we put this out, it's over, do we really want to blow it up? conan stops, before he left, blow it up.

    >> to a lot of people, "the tonight show " is still johnny carson , i would think. there is so much out there, two or three years from now, who is watching?

    >> this is a big issue. they divided the johnny audience nine way, nine good guys doing shows. very hard to find that big audience anymore. i think you will find instead of the shows lennon and letterman does and conan does with big bands and huge numbers of segment producers, i think you will see scaled down things which stewart and colbert do, in a studio, no band or extras that cost a lot of money. it used to be a moneymaker, the tonight show and not anymore.

    >> and you keep slicing, if you're a young girl , watch chelsea handler . 18-24 young males, stewart -colbert, they're dominating.

    >> and stewart is head to head against them. i did have a quote in the book, someone said young people love conan but they'll take a bullet for jon stewart . that will be a challenge for them.

    >> i would not want to bet against jon stewart .

    >> there is a different niche. jon's audience is news oriented and politically oriented. conan is a very sophisticated smart guy but does a form of comedy silly in a way and there's an audience that likes that, too. the thing about cable, he doesn't need that big audience, doesn't have to have 2, 3 billion people, if he gets a million and a half people and they are young, they can make money.

    >> let's talk about ron meyer , runs universal, a great guy, seems like the type of guy you would want to bring in to soothe things over. ron was brought in at the end as sort of the go between and there was one last chance for nbc to keep conan . tell us about that.

    >> interesting. ron became the intermediary to put the deal together to settle it. at this point, it had blown up. it didn't look like anything could be fixed. after he gets all this very elaborate detail, too many more days than anybody thought it would take, at the very last minute, he called jeff zooker of nbc , the deal is done, everybody has agreed, you have 10 minutes to make your call. if you want to, you can still turn it the other way and keep conan . you have 10 minutes to make a decision. i don't think jeff would have gone back on it. he took the 10 minutes to think about it.

    >> there's a great scene you talk about this super bowl ad that became famous, oprah in there with letterman and leno and conan asked to be in it --

    >> no way i'm doing it. this isn't a joke to me. i think this year, conan would do it. he was a raw nerve at that point. he couldn't settle in there. maybe he will never do it with jay. at that point, he couldn't turn it into humor. for a jay, a chance to get back with dave, that was exciting to him. he really was excited by that.

    >> are you shock, i remember the " 60 minutes " interview a couple months ago, conan said he hadn't spoken to leno. are you surprised they didn't speak in some way?

    >> there was a moment this first happens, jay says to the nbc guys maybe i should call conan , remembering conan had just exploded and said, what has this guy got on you, they said, don't do it. they advised jay not to call him. in the interim, you would think maybe after it settled, then jay, conan told the joke on the air that jay did not like at all, about you can have any dream you want in america unless jay leno wants it, too. that joke really turned --

    >> kind of funny.

    >> it was funny. good joke.

    >> that's a good one.

    >> i think after that, jay was saying, i don't think i can work with this guy.

    >> bill, you have such incredible access to all these key players, everybody talked to you. that's the most remarkable thing about this book. all of the players talked to you, sort of like a bob woodward book for tv. what was your biggest surprise? what was the bit of information that you got that sort of made you gasp, and go, my god, i never saw this coming?

    >> sort of funny in a way, what really got to me was the beginning of all this, nbc made a deal to give conan the show in five years. nobody really does that. it's crazy. at the time it happened, i was writing a profile of conan and they renewed jay first and said, we're going to renew jay for five more years and conan was thinking he might get "the tonight show " at that point and his people said this changes everything for us, we will have to consider cnbc and abc and fox. they had already made the deal, already had the guarantee of "the tonight show ." i didn't know that. nobody knew that. totally under the radar and never talked about it until all this blew up.

    >> a lot of lessons in there actually. don't believe everything you read.

    >> get a life.

    >> you're right. in this economy -- thank you so much, bill carter . the book once again is "the war for

Explainer: The top 10 ‘Conan’ teasers

  • TeamCoco.com

    Former “Tonight Show” host Conan O’Brien returns to television Nov. 8 in his new TBS talk show “Conan.” Of course, anyone with access to basic cable or the Internet likely knows all about that.

    For the last three months, “Conan”-related television ads and online teasers have been hard to avoid. Not that would-be viewers would want to avoid them. Fans of the late-night funnyman have had a unique opportunity to enjoy O’Brien’s signature style in the rapid-fire series of video shorts before his official relaunch.

    Before the last-minute ad efforts come to an end, take a look at the best “Conan” promos released so far.

  • Talkin’ ‘bout the desk wash

    O’Brien got in touch with his inner beefcake and gave the traditional T-shirt-soaking car wash a twist in “Conan Washes His Desk.”

    The somewhat absurd, somewhat hilarious and yes, genuinely sexy clip teased fans with what they have to look forward to when the host returns to late-night television — sponge-chewing, bubble-blowing and shirt-tugging set to the tune of Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” Or you know, just more of his sly send ups.

  • Private dancer

    The first entry from the “Missing You” series of promos to make the list is “The Stripper.” Like the others from this collection of fan fables, it’s set to a single refrain from John Waite’s '80s hit.

    “The Stripper” tells the tale of a sad and weary fan wiling away his Coco-free time by watching a pole dancer do her thing in an empty club. Of course, the fact that the man happened to be an O’Brien fan became evident only after he whispered a special request in the stripper’s ear. Her knowing smile followed by a perfect performance of the redhead’s now-famous string dance filled in the details.

  • Big-budget blockbuster

    Guess what happens in “Conan O’Brien Drives an Explosives-Packed Car of a Cliff”? Chances are you’re not wrong.

    In an effort to deliver “top notch entertainment,” a leather jacket-clad O’Brien pledged to drive a 1969 Dodge Dart off a 900-foot-high precipice. To up the action ante, he added a trunk full of C4, an interior stuffed with fireworks and a whole lot of popcorn to the mix. Of course, in reality, there was no daredevil act, but the bad CGI, good humor-filled fantasy is even better than it sounds.

  • Rubber Ducky, you're the one

    “Bathtub” is another offering from the equal parts stalker-creepy, funny-cheesy “Missing You” set.

    In this tub-time offering, a middle-aged man enjoys a weepy soak while staring longingly in the face of his favorite rubber ducky. The O’Brien-loving twist being that rather than the face of a duck, the tiny toy sports the red-bearded mug of TBS’ newest star.

  • That's gotta sting

    Ever hoped for a guided tour of each and every injury to mark O’Brien’s 6-foot-4 frame? If so, the “Grievous Bodily Wounds” edition of “Conan Takes Your Questions” is for you.

    This fan-query promo leads to a scar-for-scar rundown. There’s the little-too-low appendectomy mark, the seriously painful-looking tuna-can cut and the less said about the broken nose bit the better. Ick, but oddly interesting.

  • Cocomotion

    “Conan’s Got Dance Moves!” has a simple premise, and it’s right there in the title.

    As anyone who’s ever watched one of his monologues knows, O’Brien can dance — or at the very least, he can do one heck of a mockery of moves. From a go-go swing to an abbreviated string dance, the song-free routine highlights the host’s willingness to “look like an ass” for a laugh.

  • Wilson O'Brien

    The last example from the “Missing You” series (the last to make the list — there are actually six more bizarre gags out there) is “The Island.”

    A Chuck Nolan-like castaway, with some amazingly white Chiclets, fought off the banality of island life and kept the crazies at bay with his very own seaside entertainment center. His remote control was a conch shell and his tricked out TV flotsam, but more important, thanks to one well-decorated volleyball, the set was always tuned to “Conan.”

  • Talking heads

    In “Live Coco Cam News Coverage,” O’Brien took advantage of media interest in his promo-packed hiatus. After announcing there would be a limited-time-only live webcam in the stairwell of the new “Conan” headquarters, Team Coco created a montage of all the talking-head coverage.

    There’s nothing like watching various local news gangs tackle the blow-by-blow action of on-camera characters such as the Dancing Taco and Aerobics Bears.

  • Nom nom nom

    This time a fan question led to a “Cooking With Conan”-style promo called “Conan’s Ultimate Sandwich Recipe,” wherein everyone’s favorite host-in-exile created his own gag-inducing hoagie.

    While fans of extra mayo, extra salsa, extra gravy and chicken nuggets won’t be disappointed with the creation, all others should follow the always appropriate viral video advice: Don’t try this at home.

  • Look! Up in the sky!

    Representing the entire 10-episode run of blimp-related promos is “Conan’s Unhappy With His New Blimp.”

    Much like the other offerings in the airborne set, this one featured O’Brien cracking wise and generally annoying his blimp pilot. Where this one differs is in said pilot’s well-finessed “your mom” joke response.

    Ree Hines gives honorable mentions to “Bus Stop,”“Bedroom” and “Conan Helps With Astronomy Homework.” Follow @ReeHines on Twitter and share your favorite Coco promos.

Discuss: What did you think of Conan's new show?

Did you tune in for the series debut?

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